On Wednesday, March 13, I was present in St. Peter’s Square as Cardinal Bergoglio was elected and announced to the public as Pope Francis. I have spent this semester in Rome studying at the John Felice Center through Loyola University. Our campus is in the Monte Mario neighborhood, just north of Vatican City. From the time Pope Benedict announced that he would retire, the conclave has been a matter of intense interest here.
The papal conclave began on Tuesday, March 12, with cardinals from around the world traveling to Rome and finally gathering in the Sistine Chapel. We understood that the cardinals would meet in the chapel daily and take votes at set times during each day. Voting would continue each day until they arrived at a decision of who would become the next pope.
On Wednesday, I went down to the Vatican with a group of my classmates. We had heard that votes were scheduled to be taken at particular times during the day — a morning vote that would be announced between 10 and noon, and an evening vote that would be announced around five.
The results of both of these votes were communicated to the public by sending up smoke —black if no pope had been chosen, white if the conclave had chosen a pope. We arrived at St. Peter’s square at about 10:45 a.m. A little after 11:30 a.m., black smoke was emitted from the chimney that sits high atop the roof of the Sistine Chapel. The smoke is now mostly produced by machine rather than just by burning the ballots. The chimney was visible, but large screens in St. Peter’s Square showed close-up views of it.
After the black smoke dissipated, a few of us decided to grab lunch at a near-by restaurant, my favorite, Habemus Pizza, a great pizzeria with a clever name.
We decided to wait for the evening vote by walking around downtown Rome. Our group dwindled — it was rainy and cold, fairly typical of early spring in Rome. By 3:00 in the afternoon, only one other girl and myself were left of our group.
We decided to head back to St. Peter’s Square. The morning decision had come early, so we thought maybe the evening one would too. The crowds had thinned substantially, so we found a spot to stand fairly close to the basilica, and started to wait. And we did wait — for four hours, in the rain.
Five o’clock came and went, then six. Still no smoke. There were a few moments of excitement when it looked like something had emerged from the chimney, but it was actually just a seagull sitting on it. The square had filled up some, but the nasty weather and lack of any sort of sign kept the major crowds away.
Finally, my friend and I decided to move and stand under one of the colonnades that flank the square — we had been standing since about 10 a.m. and were drenched. As we started to slowly make our way toward one of the colonnades, a roar started to swell through the crowd, with people pointing up all over the square. We turned and looked at the chimney and there, silhouetted against the dark sky, was white smoke.
We froze where we were, still towards the front of the crowd. As people everywhere started cheering wildly, the bells of St. Peter’s started ringing. We definitely had a new pope!
The square started to fill up quickly, and everyone had to put down their umbrellas so as not to block the view. Chants broke out among the crowd in different languages. We did not yet know who the pope was or what name he had chosen.
It took most of another hour before he appeared, and the crowd’s energy kept building. A procession of the Swiss Guard, the pope’s personal guards, and a band marched into the square and up onto a blocked-off section of the steps of St. Peter’s. Then a banner was hung out on the balcony where we knew, any minute, the new pope would be announced.
The announcement was given by the senior Cardinal Deacon in Latin and then in Italian, in which the name the new pope had taken was announced: Francesco — Francis in English. It was slightly difficult to catch the full announcement, but we could make out that he was from Argentina, the significance of which was not lost on the crowd. A few minutes later, the newly named Pope Francis emerged onto the balcony, and the crowd’s cheering reached its fever pitch. By this point, there were many thousands of people in St. Peter’s square.
His address began, rather surprisingly, with Buona sera — “good evening” in Italian. Many in the crowd were surprised and pleased at this greeting in Italian. He continued by asking us to pray for him as he took up the mantle as the Bishop of Rome.
Pope Francis then led Catholics around the world in saying the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be — well known and time-honored prayers. After this short address, Pope Francis and the other cardinals departed to make further preparations and the crowds slowly began to disperse. Pope Francis was formally installed on Tuesday, March 19 with a mass in St. Peter’s Square.
This has been an unbelievable experience, not just being in Rome during this fascinating time but actually witnessing in person an event celebrated around the world. It was absolutely worth six hours standing in the rain. Pope Francis is already drawing attention and garnering a lot of positive feeling both in Rome and worldwide. As a student at a Jesuit college in Rome, there is an additional level of enthusiasm for the first pope from the Soceity of Jesus. I am very excited to see what he will do as pope, beginning with his formal installment.