ROME — As the multitudes gathered to wait for smoke last night, the mood on St. Peter’s Square — at least in the parts I occupied (and was pushed to) — was somewhere between political rally and victory parade. Some offered prayers, although, given the cold, wet weather, it wasn’t always easy to tell which hands were clutched in prayer and which for warmth. There were children perched on their parents’ shoulders, elderly couples, young people, nuns, monks, priests, seminarians — most of them speaking Italian. They argued about who would emerge from the balcony — an American? No, no — it will be the cardinal of Milan. (Indeed, the Italian bishops conference was so sure that Cardinal Scola would be the next pope that it sent out a press release congratulating him on his election.) They shouted down the flag-wavers, those wielding too-tall umbrellas — and some who had attached the two — who made it hard to see. They defended their territory on the piazza, with wide stances, and the occasional elbow. They shared restaurant tips. Groused about how long it was taking the cardinals to decide.
And then the smoke came. Gray at first, and lots of it. But not for long. “Bianca!” one middle-aged Italian bellowed, throwing his arms around a friend. “Bianca! Bianca! Bianca!” Screams, cheers, and shrieks — the stampede toward St. Peter’s Basilica had begun. A forest of umbrellas pushed forward. The Swiss Guard marched out. The band began to play. Vatican staff had assembled on neighboring rooftops. Some snapped photos from the top of St. Peter’s. Cheers from the crowd: “Viva papa!” And we waited. And waited. Patience wore thin. More arguments about the new pope. More territorial disputes. The weather wasn’t helping. And then it cleared.
When the light behind the balcony came on, the masses gasped, and applauded. And screamed some more — until Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran emerged to deliver the news, and silence descended on the assembly. They were waiting for the name, and when it came, they let out a long sigh that indicated either confusion or disappointment. Bergoglio? No one seemed familiar with the name, which ended in a vowel, but was not Scola. Someone produced a book of the cardinals’ bios. The crowd noticed. “Who is it?” A Jesuit? Seventy-six years old? From Argentina? Who took the name Francis? The people around me, nearly all of them Italian, looked puzzled as they nodded.
The pope would have to make a good first impression. But when Francis walked out on the balcony, he seemed not to know that he was on camera — in close-up. His face was expressionless, if not stern. He didn’t smile. He didn’t move much at all. And then the white microphone was raised to his mouth. As he spoke, a smile spread across his face. His eyes came to life. And the piazza roared.
“As you know,” he said, “the duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome. It seems to me that my brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am.” A touching, amusing line, and it killed. He asked for the crowd’s blessing. He bowed. He led them in simple prayer. And then he bid the Square good night, and good rest.
With that, the piazza began to empty, almost as quickly as it had filled. As I pressed my way to the media center, I passed a Catholic journalist who was looking a bit shell shocked.
“Grant!” he cried out. “Can you believe it? That was the Holy Spirit.”