It was no secret, Pope Benedict announced his resignation to the world, therefore a conclave would convene in order to select a new Pope. What were the chances that we would have the opportunity to sit for a Papal Audience and then have the opportunity to see a new one chosen in our lifetime? Moreover, who imagined that I would be living in Italy at the time it all took place?
Many of my friends had been talking about the possibility of going, but it was all about logistics…How would we get there? How long could we stay? Should we drive? Where would we park? We discussed lots of scenarios but couldn’t put any plan into action until the date of the conclave to begin was set. As the deadline grew closer, news and radio began to report that cardinals were slowly beginning to arrive to the Vatican. Then it was set. The conclave would begin on March 12, 2013. And so the research began.
No Pope has ever been selected on the first vote. So we believed we were safe in waiting until at least Wednesday, though no matter what history says, it WAS a gamble. Then we realized that if any of us were going to be able to try and make it to Rome even if for just a day trip, we had to have a back-up plan for getting someone to watch our kids (little did we know just how important that would prove to be). Obstacle number one: all four of our husbands work at the Joint Forces Command for NATO here in Naples. Beginning Tuesday, there was a mandatory exercise that they were engaged in that potentially would bring them home from work late. This narrowed our choices. Rob said he would do whatever he could to try to help me out so that I could try to go. He rocks, doesn’t he? So we kept going back and forth between Wednesday and Thursday. Whatever we chose was a crapshoot, what and when it would happen was anybody’s guess. Obstacle number 2 for me: I had scheduled 2 appointments for that day, a physical therapy appointment for Wednesday morning that normally takes 3-4 weeks to get in and so I didn’t want to cancel the appointment and a pedicure that could easily be re-scheduled. I decided that if the girls decided on Wednesday, I was going to have to pass. I just knew that in order to even make the trip worthwhile they would have to leave early and I didn’t want hold anybody up. As of Tuesday night, they hadn’t decided. Wednesday morning, I went to my appointment and it was excellent, we seemed to have been able to pinpoint my knee pain problem and I was in and out in no time at all! (Very uncommon for a military doctor appointment) So I sat in the parking lot afterwards and texted my friends.
“What did you guys decide?”
“We R on our way to Capo now …meeting Dawn at Alibus. Can u come?” Capo is short for Capodicchino, the naval base right outside Naples Airport. So they were parking their cars on base and walking to catch a bus to the train station to Rome!
I texted back, “Just leaving Support Site now, finished with my appointment.”
“Come on!! We’ll wait for you!” they texted back.
“You guys go ahead…so exciting!”
“We can wait for you! Come on…we are all headed that way!”
A million thoughts were running through my head. This is crazy! I have made no plans. This could be history in the making. These are some of my favorite gal pals and there is no one I would rather experience this with if it happens. Holding my cell in my hands, I look down at what I am wearing, because remember I just went to a physical therapy appointment, and I text, “I am in sweats and I have no camera!”
“We have cameras and we promise to only take pics of the waist up!” I smiled to myself, I have the BEST FRIENDS EVER! Before I had a chance to text back, I got a phone call.
“You are coming!! Just hang up and meet us in front of the bus!” And there you have it, I was on my way to the Vatican City in the hopes of seeing the next Pope selected.
We all met in front of the busses, when a taxi pulled up next to us and offered us a ride. Man, little did we know how much this one taxi driver was going to kick off our memories of such a fantastic adventure. His name was Anthony. He sang Beyonce to entertain us, he was so excited for us and couldn’t believe that we were actually going to Rome to see “Il Papa” right then. He even offered to be our chauffeur all day on our adventure, but we thought it best to stick to our plan and go ahead to the train station, but he sure did make us laugh.
So we took the train from Naples to Rome and a taxi to St. Peter’s. As we arrived around 10:30 AM, we noticed large masses of people walking towards us; heads hung low and disappointed looks in their faces. It was obvious, and we were so bummed that we were so close to seeing the smoke and “just missed it.” Determined to make the most of it, we snapped a few shots of the pool of cameras and crews, the patriots and their flags of every country you could imagine, and of course, of the famous steeple that would emit the black or white smoke.
It wasn’t long before news crews picked up on the fact that we were clearly speaking American English and asked to interview us. One camera crew held up a sign, “Are you from Chicago? Come talk to us!” That was our first, Sonya was interviewed by an affiliate and it was all very exciting! Next, there was a DC station, one from Miami, and one from Boston.
Then we had to strategize. The original plan was to come into Rome and be home around 4:30. You know, it’s amazing how when no one knows the correct information about something how many versions of the facts you get. One “seemingly” knowing tour guide explained that since the next vote was at 2 PM, the smoke should be sometime after that. So the plan became: eat lunch from a vendor alongside the plaza, get in place to see the smoke and then head home afterwards. It would be cutting it close but it was possible. So we ate our panini and stashed some snacks in a bag and proceeded to the desired spot, which just so happened to be front row! We were so naïve! So we started lining up our back up plans, making sure kids were taken care of and alerting the hubbies to the fact that we might be home a little later than expected. As the 2 o’clock hour came and went, we waited. …And we waited…and waited and then it started to rain. As the rain continued to test our steadfastness, we started to get “different information”. We were told that 4:30 PM was the magic hour, and while that was in fact true, there was some missing information but we wouldn’t learn that until later. Obstacles began to arise when we tried to phone our husbands and let them know that as soon as the 4:30 smoke came out we would board the next train home. As people began to fill up the piazza again, the cell phone towers were maxed out. It was a little reminiscent of 9/11 and the 2009 Inauguration. So we couldn’t text, we couldn’t call, we couldn’t receive calls, and we were at the front of this mass of people and were not about to lose our place as we were so close to the 4:30 hour. Then our Italian tutor came along, his name was Giuseppe. He explained that yes, it is true there would be a vote at 4:30 PM, but if a pope was not selected on that vote they would proceed to the next ballot before releasing the smoke. So, here is what we learned: there are indeed 4 votes, 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, but the smoke is only released twice. If a super majority is not found with the first of the morning votes, another vote is immediately taken. If the 2nd vote of the day does not result in the election of the Pope, than the ballots are combined and you will see black smoke. That is what happened.
So when the afternoon vote came, the first one was unsuccessful, so they took a second vote immediately, and that is when the magic happened!
Meanwhile, out in the Piazza, around 4:30 news crews began uncovering their cameras that were set up directly in front of the fence where we stood. The rain began to come down and we realized that we were in it for the long haul. So there we stood in place from approximately 11:30 AM.
Then something happened, I can’t help but think it was something akin to mass hypnosis as we stared at the steeple just to the right of the Basilica and on top of the Sistine Chapel, hoping and praying for smoke. Any smoke, just smoke. More people filled the piazza, the rain came down harder, and we all became paranoid observers. “Was that light on?” “Did you see a shadow walk by that window?” “Look, they moved that curtain!” “Somebody’s peeking out of that window up there! Could that mean something?” This meant that any time there was a change in the scenery the crowd freaked out. When the Jumbotrons came on, the crowd cheered. Little did we know that the Jumbotrons would continue to be up for hours before it showed anything remarkable, but there were a few events that we did see before the smoke. A bird settling on the steeple seemed undeterred and sat there for quite a while. That certainly woke up the crowd, especially when he pooped for the entire world to see. Then about an hour later, there was a huge flock of birds that seemed to swarm around the steeple. I t looked a little like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, but it was still something new to look at.
We became good friends with those around us. We met Giuseppe, the Italian tutor, and Lynette the German girl who had traveled by herself to Rome to experience the election. There was a pilgrimage group from the States that had booked their trip last October when no one in the world knew that a new Pope would be elected this week. Can you imagine? You book a trip 5 months ago, for a Catholic pilgrimage that includes Assisi and Rome and instead you learn you will witness the election of the next Pope?! Our friends had been there for the first vote and explained that they were thrown for a curve because the smoke appeared white at first and then “turned” black. If nothing else we will be sure to exchange pictures with each other online.
And then it happened, it was about 7:15 PM, we had been standing in one place for over 8 hours, bending our bodies in half just to stretch out our strained lower backs and it appeared. I don’t know about my friends, but when I saw it, I had in the back of my head what the others had said about thinking it looked white at first but turning to black, so I was apprehensive. But it WAS white, and it was staying white and people were cheering and singing and shouting and crying!! Oh my gosh, it’s white, it’s white, this is it! This is really it! The smoke is white and I am here to see it!! I cannot believe this…and then the bells started to ring! We had been told that the bells would ring so as to eliminate any confusion about color, and they were ringing! This was really happening! People were hugging and praying and all I could think of is how badly I wanted my mom and dad and family with me to experience this amazing thing, it was history in the making.
So now what? Well, Giuseppe explained to us that they now had 50 minutes to announce who the Pope is. This would mean, announcing the elected Pope to the conclave, having him actually accept the position, and then changing his clothes from that of a cardinal to the Pope. So for 50 more minutes we stood waiting for them to introduce the new Pope to the world. People took turns screaming, chanting, singing and the news cameras that were continuously scanning the crowd riled up the energy and excitement over and over.
Just a little past 8 o’clock, the bands started to enter the Piazza del San Pietro (St. Peter’s Plaza) and position themselves on the steps of the Basilica. The lights in each of the rooms that surrounds the Pope’s balcony lit up and the Cardinals came out of 4 different rooms onto their balconies and the crowd went crazy! Giuseppe just kept saying, “Wait until they open the curtain…wait until the curtain.” Then the curtain was pulled back and the excitement swelled. The crowd began to push forward, everyone was dying to know. A very elaborate and ornate cloth was spread over the balcony edge. Then they announced it, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was to become the first Latin Pope and the first to use the name Francesco. Pope Francesco I was introduced to the world! It’s then that I got chills and realized that I would have given anything to have had my Grandma Sanchez experience this with me. So many memories of her tears when I handed her a blessed rosary from Pope John Paul II flooded my head. It was electrifying to be in this crowd. Chanting ringing throughout the city, “Viva Il Papa…Viva Il Papa…Viva Il Papa!” Then they closed the curtain and the custom is that the people invite the Pope to come and speak to them. The words swelled from the audience, “Francesco, Francesco, Francesco”. It was kind of sing songy, like the way you speak to a child. The curtains parted again and he stepped forward before the world for the first time. There was quite the fanfare as the cardinals presented his vestments and he put them on. He spoke to the audience in Italian and offered a blessing.
“Brothers and sisters, good evening!
You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one… but here we are… I thank you for your welcome. The diocesan community of Rome now has its Bishop. Thank you! And first of all, I would like to offer a prayer for our Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI. Let us pray together for him, that the Lord may bless him and that Our Lady may keep him.
(Our Father… Hail Mary… Glory Be… )
And now, we take up this journey: Bishop and People. This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches. A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity. It is my hope for you that this journey of the Church, which we start today, and in which my Cardinal Vicar, here present, will assist me, will be fruitful for the evangelization of this most beautiful city.
And now I would like to give the blessing, but first — first I ask a favor of you: before the Bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me: the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop. Let us make, in silence, this prayer: your prayer over me.
Now I will give the Blessing to you and to the whole world, to all men and women of good will. (Blessing)
Brothers and sisters, I leave you now. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and until we meet again. We will see each other soon. Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome. Good night and sleep well!”
When he was through, he turned around and exited the balcony and for a moment time seemed to stand still. Everyone was smiling and had this kind of glow, this realization that they had just experienced a piece of history, heck even the security guards were smiling.
We had done it, we took a total gamble and shot out to Rome and had witnessed the election of the next Pope. It was almost 9 PM when we finally departed the piazza and headed for the station. We grabbed fast food and hopped on the first train heading home, our legs, back, and feet throbbing and stiff and we were exhausted, but had smiles plastered to our faces. Nothing could keep us from smiling and laughing and sharing memories of having witnessed one of the most historical events of our lives.