A scandal over leaked Vatican documents and reports of political infighting, financial mismanagement and administrative chaos in the Holy See's frescoed halls have cast a cloud over this weekend's ceremony to create 22 new cardinals.
With Pope Benedict XVI slowing down as he nears his 85th birthday, Saturday's ceremony has taken on the aura of a pre-conclave summit. Reports abound in the Italian media of cardinals and their supporters jockeying for prominence ahead of a future papal election, and of a Vatican bureaucracy in disarray as Benedict focuses his waning strength on other matters.
All that has weighed on Saturday's consistory, where the 22 new princes of the church will get their red hats, or birette, and be formally welcomed into the elite men's club that will elect Benedict's successor. That ceremony will bring up to 125 the number of cardinals worldwide eligible to vote for the next pope.
On Friday, cardinals new and old joined Benedict for a pre-consistory day of reflection on spreading the faith in an increasingly secularized world. The meeting was headlined by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York.
Apologizing for his rusty Italian, Dolan peppered his remarks with his trademark good humor. He told the cardinals that evangelizing in today's world required its missionaries to live and spread the faith with love, joy _ and "sorry to bring it up, but blood."
He noted how cardinals wear scarlet cassocks to symbolize their willingness to shed blood for the faith and make a pledge during the consistory to die as martyrs, if necessary.
"Holy Father, can you omit the 'shedding of your blood' when you present me with the biretta?" Dolan asked the pope. "Of course not! We are but 'scarlet audio-visual aids' for all of our brothers and sisters also called to be ready to suffer and die for Jesus."
While the subject matter was deadly serious, Dolan's delivery lightened the mood of the otherwise somber Vatican. The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, took pains to tell journalists how appreciative the cardinals were of Dolan's "lively" remarks.
The Vatican spokesman has been doing serious damage control of late amid reports and leaked documents alleging corruption in the running of the Vatican city state, money laundering at the Vatican bank and political infighting between opposing camps within the Vatican bureaucracy.
The scandal began last month with the publication of letters from the former No. 2 Vatican administrator, who begged the pope not to be transferred after he exposed millions of euros in cost overruns. He was then removed and named the Vatican's U.S. ambassador in Washington.
Subsequent news reports focused on four priests under investigation for allegedly using Vatican bank accounts to launder cash. The pope's top banker, meanwhile, remains under investigation for allegedly breaking Italy's anti-money laundering law by trying to transfer cash from two Vatican bank accounts without identifying the sender or the recipient. He has denied wrongdoing.
More recent leaks have included a Vatican document warning of a plot to kill the pope this year _ a scenario that has since been discredited _ and of an internal debate over the scope and power of the Vatican's new financial watchdog and whether the Holy See's newly minted anti-money laundering law was actually any better than its predecessor.
The scandal, dubbed "Vatileaks" after Lombardi himself noted the similarities to the Wikileaks documents scandal that hit the U.S. government, has come as the Vatican has tried to clean up its finances and be more transparent in its financial dealings to comply with international norms.
The Vatican hopes to get on the so-called "white list" of countries that share information to crack down on tax evasion, aiming to forever erase its reputation as a secrecy-obsessed offshore tax haven.
The latest reports certainly haven't helped its bid.
In an editorial this week, Lombardi said the leaks "tend to create confusion and bewilderment, and to throw a bad light on the Vatican, the governance of the church, and more broadly on the church herself."
"We must, then, remain calm and keep our nerve, make use of reason _ something which not all media outlets tend to do," he said.
The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano took up the charge as well, saying in a front-page editorial this week that Benedict was fighting unnamed, irresponsible "wolves." The pope himself made a vague reference to the rumors during a meeting with seminarians Wednesday when he said a lot was being said about the church in these days.
"Let's hope that our faith, the exemplary faith of this church, is also talked about," he said.
The picture that has emerged is one of political infighting and intrigue inside and outside the Vatican. One scenario suggests internal power struggles centering around Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope's longtime deputy and the Vatican's secretary of state whose leadership has been called into question after several botched decisions. The other underscores the tense relations the Vatican's financial institutions have with the Bank of Italy and Italian prosecutors.
"There is a great discontent within in the Roman curia, the outproducts of this discontent are back-stabbing, intrigues, anonymous letters about plots but the main thing is that Cardinal Bertone, who is the secretary of state, was never accepted by the curia because he was an outsider," said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher.
Against that backdrop is the perennial papal gossiping that comes with any consistory, since the ceremonies exist purely to restaff the College of Cardinals, which selects the next pope. All cardinals under age 80 are eligible to vote in a papal conclave.
The Italians are gaining seven new voting-age cardinals, adding to the eight they picked up at the last consistory in November 2010.
That boosts Italy's chances of taking back the papacy for one of its own following decades under a Polish and a German pope, or at least playing the kingmaker role if an Italian papabile, or papal candidate, doesn't emerge.
As of Saturday, Italy will have 30 cardinals out of the 125 under age 80. Only the United States comes close with 12, including Dolan and Cardinal-designate Edwin O'Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore who is now grand master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, which raises money for the church in the Holy Land.
The consistory class of 2012 is heavily European, reinforcing Europe's dominance of the College of Cardinals, even though two-thirds of the world's Catholics are in the southern hemisphere. All but three of the new under-80 cardinals come from the West, with only a Brazilian, an Indian and a Chinese rounding out the balance.
Dolan said in an interview this week that he had remained largely aloof to the rumor-mongering, saying he had used his time in Rome to write his speech and buy his new crimson robes that he admitted were already getting tight after too many bowls of carbonara, a typical Roman dish of pasta tossed with egg yolk, cheese and guanciale, or pork jowl.
"I've got enough challenges in New York and we've got enough problems with the church in the United States that I don't need to get my noggin all worried about the gossip that sometimes comes out of the Vatican," he said.