NORTH VERNON — Candles softly flickering across the darkened gymnasium gave a hint that something special was about to happen as the procession of 40 boys dressed in red-and-white robes and red hats entered the room.
From the bleachers along the side of the gymnasium, students of St. Mary’s School watched silently as the procession moved solemnly across the floor toward an altar at the far end.
One by one, the boys dressed like cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church filed into the center of the gym floor to stand behind chairs alongside tables covered by white table cloths. They stood silently, waiting for the last of the procession to file into the area near the altar.
Four boys dressed like the Swiss Guards stood at the door of the area, which was meant to portray the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
The Monday afternoon event in the school gym was designed to re-create the conclave of cardinals held in Rome last week to elect the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict became the first pope in about 600 years to resign.
Cardinals from around the world gathered in Rome and Wednesday chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new pontiff. He will be known as Pope Francis I.
The Catholic church is the oldest governing body in the world. The pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics consider the pope to be the apostolic successor to St. Peter.
For the past 1,000 years, the pope has been elected by a conclave of cardinals. The word “conclave” simply means “meeting.” It is the oldest form of selecting a leader of an organization. Popes appoint cardinals, and cardinals are highest in authority under the pope. Cardinals first must be bishops, and bishops must first be priests.
The Rev. Jonathan P. Meyer, wearing the black cassock of the parish priest at St. Mary’s, moved back and forth in front of the bleachers where nearly 200 St. Mary’s students sat watching their classmates dressed like cardinals.
“Imagine what a procession of 115 cardinals will look like. There are only 40 here. Think what 115 would look like,” Meyer said quietly.
Step by step he explained the procedure that would be followed in Rome. He is familiar with the pageantry of Rome as he studied there from 1999 to 2003.
For an hour, the students sat watching every phase of the mock conclave.
After the student cardinals took their seats, the first vote was held. The cardinals left their seats to each bow before the altar and place their secret ballots into a challis at the center of the altar.
The student cardinals followed the program and rituals that the real cardinals follow in Rome, as Meyer explained each stage to the audience.
“It looks like they practiced a long time for this, but we only had about a half-hour to get ready,” eighth-grade teacher Lisa Vogel said. “We only decided on Friday that we were going to do this, so there wasn’t much time.”
Meyer and the members of the school’s staff had spent the weekend getting ready.
They borrowed red cassocks from three nearby churches and whipped up the red capes needed to dress a proper cardinal. The selection of 40 boys from Grades 4-8 was based largely on who would fit into the red cassocks they had found.
Meyer designed and sewed the Swiss Guard costumes and made the point that Michelangelo himself had designed the original uniforms worn by the guards in the Vatican.
“I love make-believe. It’s a wonderful way to teach,” Meyer said.
And teach he did.
According to Meyer, any male Catholic over the age of 35 could be selected as pope. It is tradition that a cardinal would be selected, but it is not a rule. A student asked if he would be elected as pope, and Meyer said he most definitely would not be elected.
Meyer explained to the student audience the votes for who would become pope had to be counted with a system that prevented any cheating.
He explained since most of the real cardinals were between the ages of 60 and 80, some of them would become ill during the conclave, so medical personnel would be present in the Sistine Chapel during voting. To demonstrate that point, two pretend cardinals rested on stretchers while the school nurse attended them.
After the first vote, instead of the real black smoke, a black flag was raised at the corner of the gymnasium symbolizing that no pope had been elected. After the second vote, a white flag was raised symbolizing the selection of the pope.
Eighth-grader Brett Sawyer sitting with the conclave of cardinals was told he had been elected pope. After he agreed to take the job, Sawyer was the whisked off to the Room of Tears created at the edge of the gym floor. Student tailors waited there with the white cassock and the red shoes he would wear as pope.
Sawyer was left alone to pray for strength to assume the responsibility as the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics.
Students dressed as members of the press and a crowd of students gathered around the gym’s stage decorated as the St. Peter’s Basilica, where the new pope would render his first blessing.
In a firm voice, Meyer told the crowd that the Basilica of St. Peter’s was built “dead center over the body of St. Peter,” the first pope of the Catholic church. “This is how we preserve our faith,” he said.
At the end of the pretend conclave, Meyer led all the students in prayers for the real cardinals who would be electing the real pope.
Back in his normal clothes of pants and a T-shirt, student Nicholas Amrhein carried the large crucifix that had stood over the alter across his shoulder as he left the gym.
“I just wish we had more time to practice everything. It was very interesting,” he said.
After completing his responsibility as the newly elected pretend pope, Sawyer shook his head “no” after he was asked what he thought it would be like to be the real pope. Looking very serious he answered, “I never, ever want to be pope.”