Cardinals meet the crowds in the Apostolic Palace

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)It’s sometimes dubbed the world’s most exclusive club, but on Saturday the College of Cardinals threw a party with an open invitation.

The courtesy visits in the Apostolic Palace are a consistory’s most democratic moment, as international pilgrims and curious Romans line up by the thousands to meet and greet the newly inducted cardinals.

They were 20 abreast in a solid wall of humanity at 4:30 p.m., when Swiss Guards began letting people through the ceremonial Bronze Doors.

The Apostolic Palace is the pope’s house, among other things, and the cardinals were distributed throughout the ornate rooms and hallways that are rarely opened to the public.

Cardinal John P. Foley, as one of the most senior of the new cardinals, got a prime spot in the frescoed Sala Regia. He sat in a chair and greeted well-wishers with typical good humor, even though he still wasn’t feeling 100 percent after being under the weather all week.

The Polish superior general of the Felician Sisters who staff the Villa Stritch, where Cardinal Foley lives, was among the first people to greet him. She gave the cardinal a bouquet of red roses to match his new robes.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston stood in the Benediction Hall, shaking hands, chatting and answering questions. When one Italian asked if he had heard from President Bush, Cardinal DiNardo said yes, the president had called him three weeks ago. “He said`Congratulations.’ I said, `Thank you,’” the cardinal said.

Nearby, other neo-cardinals from Argentina, India, Iraq, Nigeria and Senegal were also holding court.

The visitors included ambassadors, church officials and politicians, along with lots of ordinary folk who marveled at the sumptuous setting.

Several people found themselves facing a window in the center of the Benediction Hall, peering through sheer curtains onto St. Peter’s Square. They realized with a start that this was the central balcony above the basilica, where Pope Benedict first appeared to the world after his election. One pilgrim stood there and held out his arms — just to see how it feels.

Sandra and Michael Effler of Houston had someone take a souvenir photo of themselves in front of a carved door that led to the Pauline Chapel. They were thrilled to be here, but said standing in the crowded line outside was not a pleasant experience. How bad was it? “It was worse than Mardi Gras down there,” said Sandra.

Among those congratulating the new cardinals were the old cardinals. Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, 84 years old and long retired from a number of Vatican positions, had to introduce himself to Nigerian neo-Cardinal John Njue.

I chatted with Cardinal Silvestrini afterward and he acknowledged that with a record 201 members in the College of Cardinals, not everyone knows each other. “We’re working on it,” he said, and walked slowly toward the next cardinal’s station.

At the end of the Benediction Hall, Iraqi Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly was a much sought-out figure, accepting congratulations and many promises of prayer for his country. The prayer card he handed out to well-wishers quoted the Psalms: “I will rejoice and be glad of your kindness, when you have seen my affliction.”

Cardinal Delly told one visitor he had been moved by Pope Benedict’s appeal for Iraqi Christians during the consistory earlier in the day. “He spoke the truth,” the cardinal said.

I took a look at Cardinal Delly’s distinctive round red hat, which the pope had placed on his head during the consistory. Up close, it looked like someone had simply sewn a red band of cloth around his standard Chaldean patriarch’s black hat — an elegant and creative touch.

I asked Father Philip Najim, the Chaldean procurator in Rome, if my hunch was correct. He nodded. “I did it, in Lebanon,” he said. I told him that it looked wonderful.

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