Monday, April 18, 2005

Prima Fumata...

I wasn't able to watch the opening (or closing, if you'd prefer...) of the conclave in person or on the TV. I did make a dash across the city to watch it from the big screens in St Peter's Square whilst listening to the procedings on Vatican radio, but was only just about to cross the Tiber when I heard the MC announce the extra omnes. I knew that that I'd have some waiting to do - on the schedule for the Cardinals was a reflection by Cardinal Spidlik and a question and answer session regarding the procedues to be followed.
Arriving at the Borgo Angelico I walked to the Square, strolled around a little and decided my time was best spent getting a pizza. Those 'in the know' asserted that if the Cardinals decided to vote this afternoon we'd see smoke at about 7pm.
I had my pizza and stumbled across a group of friends in the Square at about 6.30pm. We chatted and soaked up the athmosphere. The afternoon was sunny and warm, but as the evening fell it grew chilly and I began to wish I had brought my coat and gloves. 7pm came and went. There's a certain absurdity to being in the one of the most impressive locations in the world staring at a chimney. The fact that the colour of smoke coming out of said flue is world news and a sign of spiritual event of the first importance is even more absurd. We chatted, speculated, joked and (to be quite honest) began to get a little bored. Looking about we could see the square fill with locals and pilgrims alike, the former carrying flags from all over the world. Vatican radio estimated the crowd at 40,000. Quite a mob to look at a chimney.
At about 5 to 8 something began to happen. Inexplicably the crowd began to break into ripples of applause. Eyes, binoculars and telecopes were pointed at the chimney or one of the big screens. No one knew what the applause was about - there was nothing doing smokewise. A crowd sometimes has a mind of its own... perhaps that mind was trying to send the Cardinals a messgage - hurry up, it's getting cold here.
Then at 8.04pm it happened. Smoke! Just a little, but definitely white. It couldn't be! On the first ballot? It must be Ratzinger - who else would be elected on the first vote? More white smoke came out and the crowd surged forward and a wave of nuns swept past me. People began to shout - to their neighbours and into their celephones:
Non credo, è bianco!
White, white! I'm here in the square and the smoke is white!
Bianco, bianco, bianco!

And then it changed. Black, noxious-looking fumes began to billow out of that little chimney. The crowd just slumped. After 5 or 10 seconds of exhileration, of feeling that one was present at a truly historic event there came the anti-climax. 'Nero!' That's all one heard. 'Nero!' But it was as if the time of waiting was all worth it - it's curious that a few puffs of smoke could inspire so much emotion. And I walked away, disappointed that I wouldn't hear the announcement of a new pontiff this evening, but not feeling cheated. Afterall, what's a conclave without a false-alarm?

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