Wednesday, April 20, 2005

And I was there!

I was caught by surprise. No one was predicting an election this early and I was heading to the square on the assumption that we'd see smoke (presumably black) at about 7pm. I was actually drafting a blog post on the assumption that it would be thus. 'You're a Catholic nerd if you realise how absurd it is that the whole world is waiting for smoke to come from a tiny chimney and becuase of the sheer absurdity of it all you wouldn't be any other religion.' I was walking to the bus stop, listening to Vatican radio on my earphones and suddenly excitement - they were reporting a fumata and they didn't know of what colour. 'It seems to be grey' the reporter explained. I double-checked my watch and knew that there was no way they could have completed 2 ballots that quickly. It had to be white, even if the bells weren't ringing. After a moment's hesitation, I decided that the most secure way of getting to the square was to take the metro - who knew what effect this would have on traffic near the Vatican. Stopping only to tell a Spanish priest who was waiting for a bus that there was white smoke, I began my mad dash to the metro station. I probably cut quite a figure - a decidedly unfit and out of breath man in a long coat running through the streets, but I had an estimated 40 minutes to make it to the Square and having missed the white smoke itself I was determined not to miss the announcement of our new Pope.
I stamped my ticket and ran down the escalator. Getting to the platform I spread the news, and as the train arrived the PA system confirmed that there was smoke of some sort at the Vatican. But still no bells. Friends of mine in the square later told me that the bells came about 10 minutes after the smoke and only began to ring when Archbishop Marini came out onto the roof of the collonade and started making hand-signals to Vatican employees who were on the other side of the Piazza.
After a couple of stops confirmation came. Passengers boarding confirmed that the bells had started. 'We have a Pope!' A wave of emotion swept through the crammed rush-hour carriage and discussion began:
'An election this early? It must be Ratzinger or Ruini!'
'I don't want a right-wing Pope. Maybe it's one of the Latin Americans.'
'No, it must be Ratzinger.'
'Whoever it is, I hope he's as good as the last man.'

As we continued towards Ottaviano-S.Pietro metro station I fiddled with the controls of my radio. Being underground I couldn't pick up anything. Crossing the Tiber, however, we briefly surfaced and I could hear the excitement on Vatican radio. The bells were ringing, we have a new Pope. No one was getting off at any of ther other stops, and when we arrived at Ottaviano everyone just started runnining until the crush impeded progress.
Climbing up the steps and onto street level I was amazed. People were materializing from all directions and running towards St Peter's. Elderly nuns who normally shuffle along were doing impressive impersonations of marthaon runners and the police were being scrambled to start diverting traffic and officially blocking the roads which were already impassible to vehicles by the quantity of pedestrians overflowing the sidewalks. Taking a deep breath I began running too. I don't think I've ever crossed the city and made my way to the Square so quickly. I got a stitch in my side as I reached the Porta S.Anna. A friend once advised me that the best way to deal with a stitch was to keep running. Believe me, it doesn't work! Getting to the piazza I made my way to a good vantage point - in from of the obelisk, a spot from which I had a clear view of the balcony and of one of the big screens. A glance at the chimney showed the last few streams of white smoke, almost invisible against the backgroud of an overcast sky. Looking around I could see crowds running from all directions and the square filling more quickly than I'd ever seen it do so before. One Italian newspaper said that within 30 or 40 minutes of the white smoke over 200,000 people arrived in the Square. I can well believe it.
I took out a pocket telecope and focused it on the great windows of the balcony. Was there activity behind those white curtains? I couldn't tell. There was a festive athmosphere in the Square. There wasn't much singing (who knew what name to sing?) or conversation, but there was a lot of laughter. I found myself chuckling to myself with excitement on more than one occasion. At one stage it started to rain, but anyone unwise enough to start opening an umbrella was quickly chastised and told to stop. Everyone wanted a view. Seemingly out of nowhere materialized the Carabineri band, a detachement of the Italian military and the Swiss guards - all ready to pay their respects to the new Pontiff.
After waiting about 20 minutes there was definite activity on the balcony. Someone emerged and released the red curtains which had been tied back either side of the great window. The crowd gasped. And then Cardinal Estevez emerged and with much sssshing the crowd fell silent.
'Cari fratelli e sorelle,' (Dear brothers and sisters) he began. The crowd began to ask why he was not speaking Latin. Then he repeated the same words in Spanish (have they elected a Latin American?), and then in German, French and English. The crowd held its breath.

'Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum'
(And one could feel a wave of Great Joy sweep through the Square)
'Habemus papam'
(Applause and rejoicing - I must confess to being on the verge of tears)
'Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum'
(Yes, yes...)
(Nerves well and truly wracked
(And I cannot resist shouting 'Ratzinger' as Cardinal Estevez pauses for a mischievous smile)
'Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem'
(Get on with it!)
(The square explodes with joy!)
'Qui sibi nomen imposuit...'
(Ssssssh! )
'Benedictum XVI'
Immediately the chant went up - 'Benedetto! Benedetto!'
The Senior Cardinal deacon withdrew and Vatican staff emerged to hang the traditional tapestry with the arms of the previous Pope over the balcony.

After that they withdrew and the Cardinal electors began to appear at the balconies either side of the central one. They jostled each other for a good view and one or two began waving their birettas like schoolboys.

And then the processional cross was brought out onto the balcony by one of the Vatican MCs followed by the man himself! Benedict the 16th - Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. He looked overwhelmed - he gave his shy smile and began waving to the crowd. Not a natural showman like his predecessor he looked ill-at-ease, but for a second (and several people have said this to me) he looked just like John Paul II. A microphone was produced and he gave his message.
Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the Lord Cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.
I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and act even with insufficent instruments and I particularly entrust myself to your prayers.
In the joy of the Risen Lord, trusting in His constant help, we move ahead. May the Lord help us and and may His Mother be at our side. Thank you.

It was a simple, but heartfelt speech. He stumbled over the words and I felt so sorry for him. I was overjoyed that such a giant of a man had been elected, but what a task! The consensus of those who know him is that he is a wonderfully kind and sensitive gentleman, with the stamina and intellect for the task, but what a burden, especially for one so evidently shy and scholarly. The Cardinals elected him in about 24 hours, knowing that he would be slated by so many sections of the church and media. That is an indication of the high opinion they have of a man they know well. Despite the smears, despite the critisism, they judged him to be the worthy amongst them! There was nothing of false humility about his speech - he will need our prayers, but I also know that he will receive the particular help of the Holy Spirit. No vocation is given without the grace to fulfill it. I am confident that he will recieve Divine assistance in his ministry to overcome any of his shortcomings and I hope that those too 'broadminded' to give him a fair chance will recognise his human talents and the work of the Holy Spirit in all he does to guide the Church.

To be continued...
Continued here

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