To be in Rome for a Papal election is a great grace, as spiritually uplifting as it is exciting. Yesterday certainly proved so for me.
I did my best not to rush Mass—at least not to rush it too much! I think most people were in the Square or watching events on the television, as there were very few of the faithful for Mass. I ended up concluding Mass in a bit under 30 minutes. As soon as I finished, I cleaned up after Mass, locked the Basilica, turned out the lights, grabbed my cappa and camera and made for the bus. It was about 7:05pm in Rome. Seconds after stepping out of the doors of the Priory, I received a text to my phone. It was one word, but spoke volumes: “White!” I began to quicken my pace.
As I got out of our garden and onto the street, I spotted one of my confreres coming off the Tram. I told him the smoke is white, and that I was grabbing a cab. He quickly followed. Fortunately, there is a major taxi stop in front of a hotel down the street and around the corner from us. The brother and I—neither of us in top athletic form—ran for the taxi stand. There was, praise God, a line of cabs waiting. As we climbed in the first I breathlessly exclaimed: “Fumata Bianca! Andate a San Pietro!” (White Smoke! Go to St. Peter’s!). As I said before, I was never more thankful for crazy Roman cabbies.
We made our way down the street, seeing more and more cars and people flowing in the direction of St. Peter’s. The bus stops were full, and increasing crowds of people were walking towards the square. Amazingly though, the traffic, while slow, kept moving. As we were driving, we saw two more Irish friars on the street. Stopped for a pause in the traffic, they jumped into the cab as well. We were four friars packed in a small Roman cab, crawling our way through city traffic.
As we got close to the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel—the main bridge leading across the Tiber from the ancient walled city towards the Vatican—we saw that the police had closed off the bridge. We got as close as we could and jumped out of the cab. Not wanting to wait for change, the cabbie received a sizeable tip. Now, my general rule is that one ought to run only when being chased or giving chase. I suppose I was chasing a view of the new Pope. I missed the white smoke; I was not going to miss his appearance at the loggia. I ran.
And then we waited. The crowds struck me first and foremost as very young. There were lots and lots of young people. Directly around us were reporters from a French radio station (one of the friars spoke a very passable French), a very young seminarian with a South American accent, a group of American college students, an Italian cameraman, and various voices and accents from just about everywhere. I was amused especially by the American student who had dressed up for a scheduled formal dinner in Rome and dropped by the Piazza just to see what might happen. She thought she might miss her dinner—I told her that given this crowd, she almost certainly would!
As brilliant as Pope Benedict XVI was, one of the things that separated him from his predecessor was his relative lack of a Marian devotion. Bl. Pope John Paul II so loved the Virgin Mary he broke from heraldic tradition to add the Marian “M” to his papal coat of arms. In comparison, Pope Benedict’s Marian devotion was much more muted. It’s not that it was absent, just that it did not shape his faith with the degree that it did Bl. John Paul II’s. With Pope Francis, the Marian devotion seems clearly to come again to the fore. He said last night that one of the first things he will do this morning is to spend time in prayer, seeking the intercession of the Mother of God for the people of Rome and, we presume, his own papacy. He has that instinctive faith, infused with a Marian sensibility, which has long characterized Catholic piety.
And just as quickly, it was all over. Many began to move away. We waited for a few more minutes, just lingering in the experience for a bit (and taking a few more pictures). As we got out of the crowd into the center of the square, the festivity returned. There were groups of young pilgrims dancing, singing, chattering, and doing what you’d expect groups of happy young Christians to do.
And after this we went home, with a quick stop at one of our favorite Roman Pizzerias for a quick bite, and a toast to our new Pope (In honor of the new Pope, I had the Franziskaner Weissbier!):
To Pope Francis, the first to take the name, may he be granted long life and a fruitful reign. Viva il Papa!