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At The Vatican, A Social Media Blackout Keeps Cardinals Pure

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At The Vatican, A Social Media Blackout Keeps Cardinals Pure


At The Vatican, A Social Media Blackout Keeps Cardinals Pure

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now to the Vatican, where last-minute preparations are under way inside the Sistine Chapel. The conclave that will elect then next pope starts there on Tuesday. One hundred and fifteen cardinal electors will be held incommunicado from the rest of the world as they vote. And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, in the era of social media, Vatican officials are taking every precaution to prevent cardinals from yielding to the temptation to tweet and text.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: No matter how many times you've entered the Sistine Chapel, the sight of the magnificent frescoes takes your breath away. Ever since Michelangelo finished his masterpiece in 1513, the Sistine Chapel has been the venue of conclaves. But this is not a visit for art lovers. It's been organized for reporters, to give them a glimpse of how the chapel would look on Tuesday. As we enter, workers are hammering and staple-gunning carpeting to the false floor that's been erected on the stone slabs. Dan Wakin of the New York Times is curious about the long tables near the altar.

DAN WAKIN: Those are the tables that the cardinals are going to sit along. This is red cloth covering them - cardinal red, I guess. And the great Michelangelo fresco, "The Last Judgment," looking down upon them as they make their judgment on the future pope.

POGGIOLI: Who knows how the cardinals will react as they gaze at the damned, so graphically and scarily depicted by the great Renaissance artist.


POGGIOLI: In one quarter, workers have already installed a century-old cast-iron stove where the voting ballots are to be burned after being tallied. A copper pipe snakes along the wall all the way up to the chimney on the roof. The dates of many previous conclaves are engraved on its top. The color of the smoke will signal the results of the balloting - black for no pope elected, white for we have a new pope.

But the main question reporters ask is how will the Vatican ensure that only the Holy Spirit whispers in cardinals' ears? According to strict, centuries-old rules, the princes of the church must make their papal choice without any outside influence. Cardinals with Twitter and Facebook accounts - and there are several - have been warned Wi-Fi will be blocked throughout Vatican City for the duration of the conclave. In addition, there will be no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no phones - landlines or mobile. John Thavis, a longtime Vatican correspondent and author, says Vatican security forces will sweep the chapel for any hidden microphones or other listening devices.

JOHN THAVIS: Well, what we're not seeing is how they are jamming the electronic communication and they've been very coy about that. Eight years ago, I was told by a Swiss guard that it was under the flooring of the Sistine. Now, apparently they're saying it may not be there.

POGGIOLI: Secrecy has always been an obsession at conclaves - the word derives from the Latin with key, implying a locked door. Violating the oath of secrecy is punished by excommunication. When not inside the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals will be housed in a special residence on Vatican grounds. But the Vatican says they won't be frisked.

FATHER TOM ROSICA: The articles in the newspaper that say the cardinals will be searched all along the way are false.

POGGIOLI: Father Tom Rosica is a Vatican spokesman. He says, in all their movements to and from the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals will be escorted by Vatican gendarmes.

ROSICA: There's an article here in the apostolic constitution which says nobody should really approach the cardinals during that time. That was probably put in to allow cardinals who wish to walk over to the Sistine chapel rather than taking the minibus.

POGGIOLI: Ensuring a complete electronic blackout has been made more complicated by the fallout from last year's Vati-leaks scandal - private papal documents made public by deep-throats that revealed a dysfunctional administration rife with corruption and infighting. Asked about Italian media reports that Vatican authorities had authorized a covert surveillance operation to uncover those leakers - tapping phones and intercepting emails of prelates in the Curia, the Holy See administration - Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi did not issue a denial.

FATHER FEDERICO LOMBARDI: (Through Translator) In the context of Vati-leaks, some intercepts and checks may have been authorized by Vatican investigating magistrates.

POGGIOLI: It may well be that the Vatican is riddled with bugs, making the sweeping operation for electronic devices this time so much more difficult. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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