Nero. The smoke was black. We have to come back tomorrow. Inside the Sala Stampa and the Media Center at the Pope Paul VI Hall on the southern side of the Vatican, white smoke is anticipated within the next 48 hours. Peter is coming. But, for now, we wait.
Tonight, while the faithful awaited the black smoke, soft rain fell on the square. It is springtime here in Rome. Each morning, as I head to work at the Vatican, I pass under flowering trees. Back home in the US, there are several inches of snow. Flights out of O’Hare are being cancelled. But, here in Rome, spring has sprung. The air is fresh and there is an expectant mood—it feels like something big could happen.
Moments ago, the cardinals concluded their first ballot some several hundred feet ahead of me. Earlier, each cardinal took the oath of silence, standing before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and placing his hand on the Bible. Then, the “extra omnes” was announced. And, the great doors that lead into the Sala Regia were closed to the world outside. The cardinals had entered into conclave.
In the square below, JP2-Generation pilgrims remain behind after the result has been announced. These 20 and 30-something pilgrims sing spiritual songs, light candles beneath the colonnade’s cover, and spend some time together. Their cheerfulness is infectious. But, those pilgrims have changed since 2005, the last time crowds awaited smoke from the stovepipe of the Sistina.
Last time, the JP2 Generation was still growing up. That generation has matured now. Young couples stroll across the piazza with babies in tow. New priests, fresh out of their seminaries, lead pilgrims through the sacred sites of Rome. And freshman bishops and monsignors, not quite 40, head off to important late night appointments. A generation born into the world under Pope John Paul II, and educated in the faith under Benedict XVI, has come of age. That’s a change that the Church can welcome in the midst of significant challenges.
More results are expected tomorrow. Rounds of ballots are scheduled for the morning and evening. Smoke signals are expected at noon and again at 7:00 pm. If there is an election in the middle of a round–each round consists of two sets of votes–then there could be smoke earlier. We’ll keep watching.
At the Missa Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice this morning, I was overwhelmed. It was a tremendous and tremulous experience. Cardinal Sodano delivered such a beautiful sermon. He spoke about the vocation to love and the oneness of the Church. And, he said that the greatest manifestation of authentic charitable love is to share the Gospel with others. He called all of us to bond together as one with the successor to St. Peter. In time, we will. Some people in the square hold signs that read “We Already Love You, Holy Father!”
As I head home across the cobbled stones of the square, I stop for a moment to listen to the songs of African and Latin American pilgrims, most of them under 30. Those pilgrims are responding to Cardinal Sodano’s invitation to share the Gospel. Their songs communicate the infectious joy of the love of God. Older pilgrims have long since gone home, but these bright and smiling pilgrims remain in the square, close to the cardinals.
They have traveled such significant distances to be here. When I ask them why they didn’t just save their money and watch the events on television at home, they tell me that they wanted to be here in this square to wait for Peter and to celebrate Easter with him.
Heading home, I stop at a little pizzeria just outside the walls of the Vatican. It is called “Mary’s Pizza.” The place is owned by a young couple. In Italian, the wife asks me if there was white smoke. I answer her in broken Italian: “No. We have to wait.” She answers back: “Va bene.” It is ok. Soon enough. And, then, she points to the food she has prepared for me.
She and her husband understand I’m here on a shoestring budget, working as a pilgrim-journalist. I have visited their pizzeria a number of times since arriving in Rome. The food is cheap, but good. Tonight, they’re going to treat me to pasta and pizza. My first sit-down meal since I got to Rome.
Over dinner, we try to communicate. Our youthful joy and enthusiasm speaks for us. I spot half a dozen pictures of Blessed Pope John Paul II behind the counter. I try to ask her about them. She clutches her heart. Clearly, she loved the Polish pope. I tell her my name is John Paul and she jumps, ecstatic — “favorito!” She likes the name.
She shows me a picture of her and her husband meeting John Paul the Great back in the 1980s. It was taken many years ago. She looks so much younger in the picture. For a moment, I reflect back on that pontificate and what it meant to my generation. Those years feel so far away now. We smile. We understand one another.
Before I head out, she asks me if I think the cardinals will elect another man, like John Paul II, from “un paese lontano” – from “a faraway country.” I tell her: “Io no so.” I do not know. “È possible.” It is possible. But, no one is really quite like John Paul.
At the Sala Stampa, there is a lot of discussion about Cardinal Odil Scherer. He has a German background, but he is the Cardinal Archbishop of São Paolo. At 63, he holds a doctoral degree in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He is a member of the Sacred Congregations for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Evangelization of Peoples, the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Special Council for Africa of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. World Youth Day will be held in his native Brazil this summer. Perhaps, the cardinals will elect a Latin American.
But, there is also discussion about Cardinal Louis Antonio Gokim Tagle. He is the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. I like him. He is short like me and he smiles a lot. Also, he spent time studying at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., my old stomping grounds. He is a member of the Pontifical Councils for the Family, and for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. Also, he served on the XIII Ordinary Council for the Secretariat General of the Synod of Bishops.
Both Scherer and Tagle are known for their sensitivity about the Church’s social doctrine. In an increasingly globalized world that faces many significant moral challenges, such sensitivity could prove to be a meaningful asset to the man who will wear the shoes of the fisherman.
After a short walk under the cover of the Roman sky, I arrive back at the convent where I am staying. The sisters are about to play Scopa, an Italian card game. They invite me to join them. I tell them I cannot tonight, but maybe another time.
I head to the chapel. I want to pray for the man who will soon stand at the central loggia to greet the world as il novo papa – as the new pope.
Soon enough, there will be white smoke. But, tonight, it is black.
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