COVERING a conclave is chiefly about politics and pageantry, so it is easy to forget that faith is an intensely personal thing, built on relationships vertical and horizontal. We were reminded of this in the last hours of Benedict's papacy on Thursday when, after a ceremonial departure from 144 assembled cardinals, he farewelled private staff.
Vatican Television's superbly choreographed coverage caught the poignancy of the moment as the frail Benedict made his tentative progress from his apartment to the courtyard, where the staff waited, before being driven to the helicopter. A succession of elderly men and women were waiting for their moment, stepping forward, rigid with dignity and suppressed emotion, not wanting to delay him nor to miss their opportunity.
For once, briefly, we were behind the pomp and ceremony with which the church cloaks itself, using ritual and symbol and opulence to disguise personal frailties and distractions.
Another example is to gaze up the Via della Conciliazione, the handsome boulevard that leads to St Peter's Square. The view of the basilica is breathtaking. But get close enough and the tarnish is evident: the shabby scaffolding, the cigarette butts, the beggars.
The church likes to keep you at a distance so it can control your view. Governments and big companies have the same ambition but the church has been doing it for centuries and is really good at it.
But this time, as the cardinals gather to elect the 266th pope, the cracks in the facade are growing. In 2005, when many of them elected Benedict, the church faced challenges but the mood was comparatively confident and optimistic. The cardinals felt continuity was the order of the day.
Today the church is beset by a sea of troubles and the confidence has ebbed away. The toxic relationship between some cardinals is common knowledge, and no one thinks the church can afford more continuity.
There will be some lively discussion when they gather formally for the first time on Monday.
Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell created headlines around the world with some careful criticism of Benedict, saying the church needed somebody who could ''lead the church''. His staff say he was then furious with newspapers for reporting the comments from the Channel Seven interview without checking with his office. While not resiling from his remarks, he felt they had been taken out of context as an attack.
Asked about his own prospects, he told ABC TV that ''because you have a bit of form on a country track doesn't make you favourite for the Melbourne Cup''. It's true that he is unlikely to leave the conclave with a papal tiara but he is likely to be among the louder voices in the deliberations about what sort of man the next pope should be.