On Wednesday, March 13, I had two choices. I could either go to my class at 6:00p.m. or I could not. And I was leaning towards the “could not.” I had heard that another conclave vote would be happening around 4:00p.m. that day and then another one (if that vote turned out to produce black smoke) at around 7:00p.m. Even though myself and many others in Rome doubted that we would see any white smoke that day, something inside of me said that it would be worthwhile to go to St. Peter’s and wait like thousands of others for any sign of movement from within the Sistine Chapel.
And wait I did. I had a class that got out at around 4:15p.m. that day and practically sprinted to the piazza with the hopes of seeing some smoke billow out from the chimney that the entire world was anxiously watching. The walk from my class to the piazza takes about 12 minutes if you walk fast and all along the way I was praying that I didn’t miss anything important. I was even excited to see black smoke. Once the smoke starts pouring out of the chimney, it takes about 10-15 minutes until the last puff of smoke exits the shaft and enters the public eye.
Once I got to the square, I saw hundreds, perhaps thousands, of umbrellas sheltering the faithful from the rain that was sprinkling down on Rome that day. I saw the four mega screens solely focusing on the chimney, which screams every time a bird landed next to it which some may have believed was a sign from God. I had gone by myself but was supposed to meet up with friends after they got out of their classes a couple hours later at 6. I ended up seeing a friend from school in the square and together we made our way to the front of the piazza closest to the basilica to watch one of the largest screens and patiently wait.
“Do you know if there was a vote at around 4 like there was supposed to be?” I asked.
“No,” she answered. “There hasn’t been any votes since this morning. But I heard that there might be a vote around 7 too.”
There is absolutely no way of knowing what is going on inside the Sistine Chapel during a conclave nor can you tell at precisely what time there will be a vote. As I have written before, a papal conclave is perhaps the most secretive electoral process in the world, and the Cardinals are definitely on nobody else’s schedule but God’s. One conclave lasted more than two years and there is no time limit. The reason why the Cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel with no communication from the outside world is because they are supposed to be alone with God. God is supposed to spiritually guide them in their task to elect the next Successor to St. Peter. They are electing a pope who they believe Jesus would want to lead the Church rather than electing a pope who they personally want in charge.
As the hours passed, my back started to hurt and the rain had started to make my socks wet and the waiting less exciting. It seemed as if the longer we waited, the more intense the rain became. 5:00. 6:00. Still no vote. I started to wonder what those 115 men inside that chapel were thinking. What were they discussing? Had someone gotten the 77 votes needed but refused? Those in the piazza had no way of knowing and we never will. Then 7:00 came. This was the hour when the next vote was supposed to arrive. I had by back turned to the basilica talking to my friend and keeping an eye out for my other friends who were supposed to meet up with us.
Then, at around 7:12, I heard screams. I quickly turn around and see smoke slowly creeping out of the chimney. And then I heard some sighs because initially the smoke appeared to be black. Then, a fraction of a second after I had conceded that this vote would be yielding black smoke, all of a sudden someone behind me screamed “Bianco, Bianco!! (“white, white!!”). And as I looked more closely, the smoke coming out of the chimney was indeed turning white, growing more distinctly white as more and more smoke boldly exited the chimney to tell the Catholic world that they had a new leader.
Suddenly the masses from behind me begin making a mad dash to get as close to the front of the piazza as possible. People were shoving and I was squeezed in between people so tightly that even being “packed like sardines” seemed better than my current situation. This was the largest crowd that I had ever been in, and the excitement was only building. Within minutes of the white smoke, the Swiss Guard (who are the officially guards and security force of the Holy See) and band begin marching in from the right of the basilica, exclaiming the joyous occasion that was occurring.
As we waited about an hour before there was any sign of life from the balcony of St. Peter’s, every single person in that piazza was thinking only one thing: Who was elected? What was his name, where was he from, and what would he call himself? I was hoping with all my heart that the Church would move forwards and not backwards. If an Italian had been elected, the world would have been upset. Even a European would have brought tears to people’s hearts.
Then the lights inside the basilica turn on and the Cardinals begin marching in. The doors to the balcony open and the noise level in the piazza increased dramatically. The cheers were incredible, being shouted in every language imaginable. Then the senior cardinal walked out and declared “Habemus Papem” (“we have a pope”). Then we said the new pope’s name. Francesco.
“Argentina!!!!” I heard someone scream from behind me. Suddenly I felt better, and I began to realize the magnitude of history that I was witnessing. Francesco addressed the crowd and blessed us, speaking in Italian, and offered some light humor which greatly pleased the crowd. It wouldn’t be until I got back to my apartment that night that I would learn that the pope’s name in English would be “Francis.” It became clear that change, though gradual, was possible even from within the Church, one of the most conservative institutions in the entire world.
And as I exited the square, nearly 5 hours after I entered it, I gave myself a pat on the back for skipping my class because had I not I wouldn’t have seen the white smoke. I even got interviewed by none other than Anderson Cooper! And I knew that what I had just seen would probably be one of the most significant events of this decade.