Being in Rome the past two and a half weeks was a little bit of a time warp.
When I arrived March 4 to join the CNS Rome bureau in their conclave-election-installation coverage there was so much unknown and plenty of speculation in the air about who would be the new pope. Few had their sights on Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.
Fast forward to March 13, a cold rainy evening in Rome. The crowd in St. Peter’s Square stood around talking, praying, shifting their weight from foot to foot. One person likened it to waiting for the ball to drop in New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The big difference was: everyone knows exactly when the ball will drop; no one had any idea when they might see smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney.
Plenty of the Vatican smoke watchers seemed to have some degree of inside knowledge. When smoke didn’t appear by 5:30 p.m., pretty much everyone thought it would be black later that night. They made plans to come back the next day and hoped it would be white in the morning, not the evening.
Of course the “experts” ended up being wrong.
I had also assumed there wouldn’t be a definitive vote that night and had worked myself to the perimeter of the square to make for an easy exit once the predicted black smoke appeared on one of the Jumbotron television screens.
I actually had fallen prey to this false advice even before going to the square that night taking only a partially-used reporter’s notebook and one ink pen. The thing is — and I should know this from covering countless March for Life events — ink pens don’t work so well in the cold and rain.
After nearly two hours in the square, I finally asked an Italian woman, by miming how my pen didn’t work, if she had a pen I could use. In perhaps the first miracle of the night, she somehow got what I was saying and indeed found a pen for me at the bottom of her purse.
Pen in hand, I called the CNS booth in the Vatican press office to see if they wanted any of my quotes for the second-day vote story. While talking to Rome bureau chief Frank Rocca, I saw smoke on the screen, screamed in his ear that it was white and then joined the wave of people who immediately ran to get as close to the basilica as possible, and then some, with plenty of pushing and shoving when the crowd reached an impasse.
Since then, all is a blur. The pope was announced; he rode the bus back with the cardinals afterward. He met with cardinals and journalists. He celebrated Mass in a small church just inside the Vatican. He said his first Angelus. He had his inauguration Mass. He met with ecumenical leaders.
“It seems like a month since the pope was elected,” Onismo Makova, a seminarian from Zimbabwe told me prior to the inauguration Mass since we recognized each other from an interview prior to the Angelus.
Amen to that, I thought.
After the pope’s Mass yesterday, life in Rome seemed to go back to normal, almost immediately. Streets were washed clean as soon as the pilgrims cleared the square. Tour guides and souvenir shops were back in full force.
By today, most of the 5,000 plus extra journalists in town were gone and construction crews were dismantling the media platforms down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica.
This morning St. Peter’s square was getting set up for Palm Sunday, complete with trees and bushes around the square’s obelisk. Congratulatory banners and signs for Pope Francis were still hanging in the city and shops were selling Pope Francis postcards, rosaries, magnets and T-shirts.
For now, of course, it is still a honeymoon period for Pope Francis.
One person I interviewed showed cautious optimism about what the new pope would bring to the church, but, like almost everyone else, he couldn’t help but take in some of the enthusiasm about him.
“We should buckle our seat belts and enjoy the ride,” he said.
Indeed. The crowd may be leaving the Eternal City, but we’ll hang on tight for what’s ahead.