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The roofscape around St. Peter’s Square has been sprouting TV platforms like mushrooms after a rainstorm.

The idea is to give cameras an unimpeded view of the Vatican and, above all, the Sistine Chapel smokestack, to the right of St. Peter’s dome.

The networks learned the last time around that these rooftops and terraces quickly become prime real estate in Rome, so most have had contracts signed well in advance.

Their hosts are often religious orders, which gain much-needed income (enough to pay the utility bills for years, one would guess) but have to put up with hundreds of TV people traipsing through the premises.

One problem for the networks is that a clear view from one rooftop may quite suddenly be obscured by a new TV studio on a nearby building. So far, there have been squabbles but no wars.

Many of these TV sets are perched above sets of steep, winding stairs. The other day I followed a cardinal up to one of these aeries and had to admire his climbing skills.

In these pre-conclave days of more questions than answers, a welcome addition to the Vatican press office has been Father Tom Rosica, a media-savvy Canadian who’s been giving English-language (and some French-language) briefings.

Father Rosica, a member of the Basilian religious order who runs the Salt + Light Television network (an excellent resource for the papal transition), knows what journalists need from the Vatican and has been doing his best to deliver it: clear, succinct information in several languages.

Rosica has been taking his cues from Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, who also brought in a Spanish-speaking priest for the papal transition.

Things should get more interesting next week when the briefers will be asked about the cardinals’ twice-daily meetings in the run-up to the conclave. During synods of bishops, briefing officers in various languages have some leeway in how much information they can provide. We’ll see if that’s also true when the cardinals hold their discussions.

It can’t be easy to cast that first ballot in a conclave, and by all accounts cardinals in Rome are showing due diligence as they research papal candidates.

They rely, first of all, on the impressions formed in personal encounters they may have had with the men considered papabili. Then they consider past events – mostly in Rome – where leading cardinals have spoken or somehow weighed in over the years.

And, as Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said this week, they are “using the Internet a lot.” Yes, cardinals are Googling each other, and could it really be otherwise in this day and age?

But there’s an aspect that’s often missing from this rapid round of vetting and appraisal, one that should be crucial to the choice of the next pope: the pastoral dimension.

For all their research and discussion, cardinals have a very hard time gauging how a papabile gets along in his home diocese — how successful he’s been in energizing the church at the local level, how many bridges he’s been able to build with the larger society and how effective he is when interacting with his own faithful.

That’s a pretty big blind spot when it comes to choosing a pope, especially when a perennial requisite is that the next pontiff be a “pastoral” figure.

The fact is, most papal contenders are assessed when cardinals’ paths cross in Rome: at synods of bishops, at consistories and, to a smaller degree, at conferences and meetings sponsored by various Vatican agencies.

Cardinals at these venues become well-known mainly by giving speeches or delivering papers. These are rather dry exercises, and it explains why even some leading papabili are considered “good on paper” but unknown quantities when it comes to motivating and guiding their flock.

Cardinals are generally not in the habit of dropping into the home dioceses of papal candidates to watch them in action. Yet this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of pastoral leadership. It’s easy to come to Rome and give a speech; it’s much harder to respond to challenges by Catholics and clergy, explain Catholic teaching to a skeptical society or rebuild credibility in the wake of the sex abuse scandals.

This “missing dimension” should weigh on the minds of cardinals as they gather in Rome, and prompt some additional research — at least more in-depth consultation with each region’s electors.

Of the 117 potential cardinal-electors, 63 are active resident archbishops, in dioceses populated by more than 130 million Catholics. Among this group are at least 10 cardinals being considered for the papacy. In the calculus of papal qualities, their role as pastors should be part of the equation.

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