Roman Journal: Witness to a New Papacy--6
Our Sunday Visitor Publisher Greg Erlandson traveled to Rome to cover the Papal Conclave. He filed reports as the week progressed with his observations and commentary.
Waiting for history to be made can be rough on the feet.
For two days, I stood in the great square in front of St. Peter's Basilica, waiting for one of the most evocative images of the papacy, the smoke signaling a new pope. Sore feet from standing on the cobblestones were a small sacrifice to be present at such an important moment. For hundreds of years, Catholics in Rome have had the privilege of greeting the new pontiff, but this was my first papal election, and I was determined not to miss it.
The newspapers were full of speculation -- some true, some patently false. Journalists dissected which cardinals dined together or walked together in the days leading up to the conclave, and speculated about which had health issues or who was a stalking horse for which faction.
Most of the Italian press speculation focused on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was one of the three or four most important curial officials, particularly in Pope John Paul II's final years. As dean of the College of Cardinals, he preached a superb homily at the pontiff's funeral.
His name was supported by those who wanted the legacy of Pope John Paul to be safeguarded, by those who wanted a pope they thought would be even more aggressive in challenging modern errors and by those who simply respected him for his great intellect and profound personal humility and faith.
The conclave begins
According to the rules of the conclave, on Monday, April 18, Mass for the election of the pontiff was celebrated by none other than the dean of the cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger himself.
His homily could have been a sort of campaign speech, but it was instead a moving spiritual meditation on the Mass readings (Is 61: 1-9, Eph 4: 11-16 and Jn 15: 9-17). Citing St. Paul's message to Ephesus, the cardinal made it clear that today the bark of faith is threatened by fundamentalism, radical individualism and what he described as a "dictatorship of relativism."
But he also laid out a vision of divine love, and at one point told the congregation, "We must be animated by a holy restlessness: A restlessness to bring to everyone the gift of faith, of the friendship of Christ."
In a sentence of moving simplicity, the cardinal said, "Thank you, Jesus, for your friendship!"
The homily ended with spontaneous applause from those of us in the "cheap seats," what tradition calls the "faithful present in the city of Rome" who managed to attend the Mass.
Mass ended, the cardinals processed out to the warm applause of the people. That afternoon, they were locked in the Sistine Chapel for the first vote.
On Monday evening, a little more than one hour behind schedule, the smoke appeared from the chimney and simultaneously on four huge video screens in the square. "It is white!" some in the crowd of thousands shouted. But soon it became black, and Day One of the conclave ended without a pope.
After the first day, the cardinals took two votes each morning and two each late afternoon. If two-thirds had not elected a pope on either ballot, the ballots were to be burned at noon and 7 p.m. If a pope was elected on the first of the two ballots, however, then they would be burned immediately and white smoke would appear.
For this reason, we smoke watchers had to be in the square from about one hour after the voting started until the designated time for burning, since we could not miss either vote.
On Tuesday at noon, with perhaps 20,000 people in the square, black smoke finally poured out of the chimney, and the smoke watchers went off to lunch.
At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, I went to a little church hidden near St. Peter's, where I was told that young people in Rome were holding Eucharistic Adoration for the cardinals. In this ancient, simple basilica, I sat and prayed for the cardinals, the Church and Our Sunday Visitor for a half hour, and then I re-entered St. Peter's Square.
White smoke and bells
Then, a little before 6 p.m., again with perhaps 30,000 or more people in the square, the smoke began. At first it was unclear -- some shouted it was white, others said black. Vatican Radio reported the latter. But it soon dawned on many of us that 6 p.m. was not the official time to burn the ballots. This could only mean that there had been a successful vote, and we had a new pope.
About 10 minutes later, the bells began to peal, and near the offices of the Secretariat of State I could see officials standing on the balcony in expectation.
I called my wife in the United States, shouting, "White smoke, white smoke!" So many people were calling others about the news that soon the entire telecommunications grid ground to a halt, and cell phones stopped working in the square.
But the word was out. Hundreds upon hundreds of people streamed out of Vatican offices and from the universities, hotels and offices nearby. Police tried to block traffic on the main road leading to St. Peter's, but the press of cars and people made it nearly impossible. Within half an hour there were easily 100,000 people in the square and on the boulevards nearby.
People sang. Flags from America, Honduras, Nigeria, Thailand, Mexico, Italy and more waved in the breeze. Nuns and priests prayed the Rosary. The air was electric with excitement and the flash of cell-phone cameras.
After 45 minutes, the glass doors in the center of St. Peter's façade opened. All along the second level of the façade, the cardinals stood on the balconies, a special show of solidarity and support for what was to come.
We have a pope!
Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez invoked the ancient formula for announcing a new pope. "Habemus papam," he said, and the crowd applauded. Then in Latin he mentioned the first name of the man who was now Pope: "Iosephum . . ." Joseph.
"Ratzinger!" shouted many in the crowd, although other cardinals shared the name Joseph. Applause rang out. Young American seminarians studying in Rome cheered. Some in the crowd hugged each other. A few shook their heads.
Then the new Pope appeared: Pope Benedict XVI. On the massive television screens, he looked calm at first, smiling and waving. The crowded responded warmly. Then his first words: After the "great John Paul II," he said, "the cardinals have elected me, a simple worker in the vineyards of the Lord."
He sought the prayers of the people, and they cheered their support. He did not banter with them, or try to imitate Pope John Paul II. He was himself: perhaps a bit shy, an intellectual churchman many thought could not, would not be elected.
Yet he did not seem bowed by the great responsibility that the cardinals had placed on him. He is familiar with its duties, and he will have a short learning curve. He will be more than a simple caretaker of someone else's legacy.
For hours after, people remained in the square, many chanting "Benedetto!" ("Benedict!") as if he was a soccer star. Young people, old people, men, women and children, all races and nationalities, the faithful of Rome and representative of the world, cheered the man who now was Servant of the Servants of God.
There will be time enough for analysis and debates in future articles, for speculation about the votes and for hopes for the future.
Tonight, however, we have a pope. Habemus papam. The Church eternal is also the Church ever new. Today, history was made once again as we stood on the stones of St. Peter's Square.
--Greg Erlandson is president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.
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