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Pope Francis: Impressions Part 1

March 22, 2013
The Election of Pope Francis (All rights reserved by

The night Pope Francis was elected, I was standing in St. Peter’s square, holding an umbrella against the rain and gazing at the little chimney on the Vatican roof. It was a chimney you would expect to find on a diner or a woodsman’s shack — a simple metal tube hardly visible in the shadow of the dome — and yet it was the most interesting object in the square that night.

We had come at around 6:45 in the evening. My two maltese co-friars were carrying an enormous Maltese flag each. To carry a flag and an umbrella into a square jammed full of flags and umbrellas was no easy thing; but somehow I found myself not too far from the front of the Basilica, shoulder-to-shoulder with Italians on my left and a Canadian family on my right. Everyone was chatting, speculating if there would be a new pope that night, taking pictures of the chimney, trying to stay dry.

Now it was 7:05 or so. And suddenly, a delighted roar went up from the crowd: plumes of white smoke billowing from the diner chimney, which seemed smug that it could provoke such a scene. Umbrellas went down; phones and cameras went up. The people surged forward, eager to catch a glimpse of the new Bishop of Rome.

We caught no glimpses for a good hour. Instead of the chimney, all eyes were on the balcony, those huge glass doors draped in red curtains, destined to release not white smoke but the man in white. It was a long wait. Fortunately the rain had stopped, allowing more phones and cameras to glitter and flash in the dark.

After a while the distant melody of a march rose above the general murmuring. The drums and cymbals grew louder, horns blared, and the Swiss guard marched out from somewhere — bright-orange striped uniforms and shiny helmets rose into view as they climbed the steps to the facade and stood to one side beneath the balcony. We all cheered till we were tired. Then we waited some more.

Another endless interval . . . and another marching band was heard, this time the Roman police, who came up the Basilica steps banging out the Italian national anthem while the Italians in the crowd sang along, and the red and blue uniforms paraded around and finally stood at attention on the other side of the facade under the balcony and we all cheered till we were tired. By now it was almost 8:00.

“He has to come out some time,” I said to the Canadian on my right.

“I hope so,” he said as his camera flashed in the dark. “We all got in this morning and have been waiting all day, and we don’t even know where we’re going to sleep tonight. But this is too good a chance to miss.”

After he said that, waiting for an hour didn’t seem like such a bad thing, after all. And it was pretty thrilling to feel the expectation of that mass of people
from every corner of the globe, all participating in this colorful pageant which is a papal election, all of us spectators of a historical moment. It was just a little nerve-wracking to watch those balcony doors, knowing they could open at any moment, and the doors staring back at you, immobile as any Swiss guard.

The light switched on. Someone moved in the room beyond the balcony. We all cheered until we were tired.

Ten minutes went by.

The balcony doors opened!

Furious uproar from the crowd.

A few men came out, set up a microphone, threw down a tapestry, loosened the drapes like curtains in front of the doors, and went back inside.

Ten minutes went by.

“I hope this isn’t just stalling for time while they try to find out where the new pope went,” I said to the Canadian, who laughed at my lack of faith.

And then —

The red curtains trembled. Two surplices came out, followed by a cardinal, and then the pope was standing at the balcony.

Furious uproar, phones and cameras glittered in the night, we all cheered until we were tired. Then we were silent, and waited.

Pope Francis leaned into the microphone.

Buona sera,” he said. And indeed it was.


From → Musings

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