JP Reports on the View from St. Peter’s Square

On Wednesday, a few minutes after seven o’clock in the evening, white smoke billowed out of the small smokestack of the Sistine Chapel. At first, crowds gasped in surprise, half-believing what was happening before them. That moment of surprise was arresting.

As smoke streamed from the Sistina, shouts of “Fumo bianco!” resounded across St. Peter’s Square; and, cries of “Habemus Papam!” accompanied the event. In a few moments, the great campanile of St. Peter’s basilica began to bellow, confirming the presence of white smoke. There could be no question, now: The cardinals had elected a pope. The crowds answered the magnificent sound of the bells, chanting, “Viva il Papa!”

As the bells rang, faithful pilgrims rushed into the piazza, joining those inside. Teeming throngs of pilgrims pushed forward, advancing towards the portico of the great basilica and swelling the size of the crowds beneath the central loggia. Large banks of television cameras, stationed on the far side of the square, outside the territorial boundaries of the Vatican and all along the Via della Conciliazione, transmitted images of the scene to countless viewers around the globe. Some media outlets were as shocked as the crowds themselves.

A large number of journalists and pilgrims didn’t expect an election until at least the sixth ballot later in the week. But, it came as a welcome surprise – under the cover of night and just five ballots into the conclave. Still the longest conclave in a century, the puffs of white smoke caught many people off guard. Now, the people awaited the revelation of the name of the man the College of Cardinals had elected pope. For some time, a lot of people speculated about the election of Cardinals Scola, Scherer, Ouellet, or Dolan. Those speculations were about to be put to rest.

Before long, Rome’s almost uncountable church bells began ringing in unison against the darkness of the night. The feeling was electric. Young pilgrims broadcasted Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and instant messages around the world, celebrating the moment. But, then, the all-important question surfaced: “Ma, qui serÁ?” Who will it be?

About an hour passed before the Cardinal Proto-Deacon appeared at the central loggia. When he made his appearance, the cardinal seemed nervous standing there in front of the massive throngs of pilgrims. At 69, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of France read the announcement. “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam!” The crowds erupted, again. All of Rome seemed to be cheering.

The cardinal continued, “Eminentissimum ac Reverendissiumum Dominum, Dominum…” A sudden hush fell upon the crowd. The name of the man elected pope was about to be revealed. “Jorge Mario, Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio, qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.”

A strange mixture of jubilation and bewilderment greeted the announcement. “Qui è?” Who is it? “Italiano?” An Italian? The middle and last names sounded Italian, but not the first one. Italians standing alongside me assured me it wasn’t one of their cardinals. “Doesn’t someone have a smartphone? Look it up for us!,” a six foot tall seminarian from Rome’s Pontifical North American College on the Janiculum hill shouted out.  

Although the choice was a surprising and unfamiliar one, the teeming throngs of faithful pilgrims welcomed him, nonetheless, shouting out “Francisco! Francisco!” One child, not quite 10, tried to keep pace with his older brothers, chanting right along with them. 20 and 30-something Italian men, holding onto their girlfriends, celebrated the moment, shouting out “Viva il Papa Francisco!” Youthful enthusiasm for the new pope filled the square.

When the new pope appeared, the crowds’ cheering and chanting exploded. Standing at the central loggia of Michelangelo’s marvelous basilica, amid the pomp and circumstance of the Swiss guardsmen and the Roman gendarmes standing at attention below, the scene provoked a profound sense of temporal splendor. Before the pope spoke, the Italian and Vatican national anthems were intoned. Stateliness was profuse.

Then, the pope spoke his first words. With rapt attention, the crowds listened to the voice of their new shepherd. Wearing a simple white cassock without the ermine mozzetta, he greeted them in the language of the Roman people, “Buona sera.” “Good evening.” His humble appearance stood out against the regal spectacle. With a simple hand gesture, he waved to the crowds below. And, the crowds cheered him on, encouraging him as he stood before them for the first time as their supreme and universal shepherd.

Since that moment, the world has quickly learned about Papa Francesco’s solicitude for the poor, his tenderness for those suffering with HIV-AIDS, and his inspiring lowliness. Back home in his native Argentina, he lived in a simple apartment instead of an episcopal palace, he cooked his own meals, and he sold off the bishop’s limousine, taking the bus to work instead. The morning after his election, he returned to the hotel where he was lodging before the conclave, he gathered together his own baggage, and he paid his bill, wanting to set a good example to bishops around the world.

But, on this night, Pope Francis did not want to focus attention on himself – on someone from “the ends of the earth.” In time, the people would learn more about their new bishop. “We will see each other soon,” he promised them. He wanted – instead – to stand with the people of Rome and of the whole Church in a moment of quiet reflection for the Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI. And, he wanted to ask for a favor from the Church: “Before the Bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me.” He wanted to ask the favor of “the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop.”

Before taking his leave, Pope Francis informed the crowds that “Tomorrow I will go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome.” To this, 20 and 30-something Roman men shouted back, “Bravo!”—“Yes! That’s right! Good idea!” Making another simple gesture, the new pope bid the crowds “Good night and sleep well!” Young pilgrims in the square teased him, encouraging him to spend more time with them. Their enthusiasm for him and the instant rapport between him and his people was evident.

After the pope had returned inside St. Peter’s, 20 and 30-something pilgrims headed out into the streets of Rome, celebrating and chanting “Francesco! Viva il Papa Francesco!” Although it was Lent, Rome felt like it was in the midst of Mardi Gras as bars and restaurants teemed with celebrating pilgrims. All of Rome seemed to be cast into a late-night festival. Pilgrims who did not share a common language sang and danced together. Brazilian pilgrims, who had expected one of their own to be elected pope, exchanged flags with Argentinians. On sport fields, Brazilians and Argentinians are clear rivals. But, on the night of the election of Pope Francis, they forged a new alliance. In their festival-making, Brazilians and Argentinians responded to Pope Francis’ invitation to embark upon “a journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches … a journey of fraternity, love, [and] of trust among” people. 

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.