The recent Conclave, resulting in the election of Pope Francis I, sends me back in time to the start of the reign of Pope Benedict, the first Pope to renounce his papacy in over 600 years and only the third to do so in the history of the papacy.
I attended Conclave in 2005. At least, I got as close as I could. I grew up going to Catholic Church and attending Sunday school. Every week, without fail. That is, until travel softball delivered me from the ritual (at least during the summers) at the age of 14. ‘The ritual’ is not something I enjoyed. Except for the post-mass breakfast of french toast and bacon, as much a part of the routine as lip-synching psalms and sipping wine from a community chalice, I would have preferred to be almost anywhere else.
I remember watching news coverage one night in late March of the ‘black windows’ above St. Peter’s square, the Pope’s residence inside the Vatican. There was no activity because inside John Paul was deathly ill. He died that night. I was still at home in NY, watching the coverage with my parents. I was due to leave within the week to start my second season in the Italian Softball League, and I did a quick schedule check to see where we would be playing on the day that conclave was scheduled to start. As Jesus would have it, we were going to be close (enough) to Rome to make this possible. Our games were always on Saturdays; Sundays and Mondays off days. I decided that I would be at conclave, with or without company.
As it turns out, I did have company. Our team had signed 2 new foreigners for the 2005 campaign and at the first sounds of ‘Rome Adventure’ they went all in. Neither had any particular interest in conclave, but were gladly along for the ride and excited for their first trip to Rome.
Now, when I decided back in the US that ‘I would be at conclave’, I actually had no idea what that meant. In fact, before John Paul 2’s passing, I had never heard of conclave. But I knew it was big. A major world event that most of humanity cannot attend, just my style. So, having no plan, no sense at all of the day’s schedule of events, I insisted on waking up ‘early’ and making our way immediately to St. Peter’s Square. When we arrived, the Basilica was packed and an aisle had been barricaded off and ran the length of the interior. I realized that we were just in time for mass! Again, my excitement did not come from my deep connection with the church, but instead with the idea that, although the place was packed with hundreds of people, in comparison to the world population that had any interest in this mass, I was a part of a fraction of a percentage that was actually inside the church.
And that is what it’s all about. The experience. Being there, as opposed to watching the news.
We were there. But we wanted to be closer. So we loosened up our elbows, put our heads down to avoid eye contact and forged our way deeper into the crowd, the barrier-created aisle our intended destination. We’ve all done it at some point. We have all put our manners aside and temporarily justified blatant pushing in order to gain just a few more inches, a better view, a greater chance to be picked out of a crowd. But there comes a point when the awkwardness of being rude begins to outweigh the reward of new distance gained. This is usually at the point in which new distance gained is not enough to avoid eye contact with the person you just accosted in order to win that space. My teammates and I found this magical ratio and settled in.
Isn’t it true in these situations that at the precise moment that you stop being a member of one group (the rude pushers), and become a member of the other group (self-righteous ‘standers’), you assume all qualities of and, therefore, rights of the new group? Namely, the rights to give dirty looks, scoff aloud, push back if necessary and, in extreme cases, speak up-either directly to the offending pusher or indirectly to a member of your own group loudly enough for the offender to hear. Not long after my posse switched from rude to righteous , Amy found it necessary to invoke each one of these rights. In fact, she went to the final level before violence-profanity-which, considering our setting, was pretty serious.
Laura and I didn’t notice at first. There was some jostling, sure, but on this extraordinary occasion, jostling had to be considered ‘ordinary’. No, the situation did not draw our attention until the retaliation: Amy’s healthy shove, punctuated by a firm, “bitch”. That got my attention, and as I turned around, that famous Catholic guilt filled me as I saw the unmistakable black and white of a nun’s habit. Unfazed (have you ever seen a nun fazed?) by the aforementioned ‘magic ratio’ of crowd pushing, she pressed on, literally, as if she felt she had some divine right to that center aisle.
Our attention was soon diverted from the nun, thankfully, when the large red curtain in front of the Pietà, hung specifically for the occasion was drawn back revealing the College of Cardinals. Hundreds of red robes began to process forward, right toward us! They turned right to head down the center aisle and I was able to snap a few pictures (irreverent?). One of my favorites from that day is of Cardinal Ratzinger, bringing up the rear. The last person to process in to a Catholic mass is always the priest who will be saying the mass. This was Ratzinger’s last mass under that name. He was elected the new Pope later that afternoon, Pope Benedictus, with just the second cardinal vote.
After mass we weren’t really sure what to do. Certainly food was high on the list, but otherwise we had no plan nor, as I mentioned earlier, any idea what happened on the first day of conclave. What I did know was that smoke is used to indicate when a vote had taken place, and the color of the smoke told whether the vote had chosen a new Pope or if the cardinals were back to work. I was on a mission to take a picture of that smoke, and experience whatever else came with this. Now, where does the smoke rise from? And when do the cardinals begin deliberating? I had many questions and only 1 answer: I was not leaving the square today.
So when my friends suggested doing some sightseeing around Rome, I told them exactly that. “Have fun, I’ll be here.” After all, I had seen Rome; the year before as I did a whirlwind tour through Italy on my last week before returning to the States, checking off cities and ancient landmarks as though they were items on a grocery list.
So, Laura and Amy set off to do some checking off of their own. Upon their return they found me in the same spot, sprawled on a piece of the marble stairs that ring the square, head resting on a backpack, book open. Absolutely nothing spectacular or even slightly out of the ordinary had happened here. The only notable differences in the square between this day and the two other days that I had been there were: The red velvet curtains outlining the balcony door above the public entrance to the basilica. This is where the name of the new Pope would eventually be announced and the newly anointed one would address his flock for the first time. And the second difference-2 projector big screens flanking the basilica and facing the square.
If I remember correctly it was about 4:00 in the afternoon when those big screens flickered to life, bringing me and the not-overwhelming crowd in the square, face to face with the College of Cardinals for the second time that day. I was locked on the screen as if the cardinals would walk right out of it and through the square. Instead though, they processed through the network of corridors connecting Vatican City until they arrived at their destination, the sight of deliberations: The Sistine Chapel.
Aside from the Cardinals, only a very select few are allowed inside The Sistine Chapel during conclave. These include the Secretary of the College and the Master of Papal ceremonies. While a vote is taking place, even these privileged few are excused, leaving only the Cardinals themselves.
The video we watched on the big screens in St. Peter’s Square-what I had assumed was typical news coverage, but found out later was a closed feed only seen in the square-is, I believe, as close as you can get without a red robe. We were with the Cardinals step for step right up to the doors of the Chapel. The cameramen stopped there, continuing to record the Cardinals as they walked past, filed in, and took their seats. Then we watched as the doors-the floor to ceiling, wooden doors-were closed on us.
And so the waiting began again. After an entire day lounging on these marble steps, checking the smokestacks above the Vatican regularly so as not to miss any vote-indicating smoke, now I actually knew that the cardinals were in there, discussing, deliberating, maybe even voting. I readied my camera and shortened my intervals of smokestack checking. I was not missing my smoke picture, even if it was black smoke-indicating that the vote had not produced a new pope.
Once the big screens switched off, after the doors had been so unceremoniously closed on our faces, I returned my attention to the square. I had not been paying attention to the growing crowd, but realized now that the square was quite crowded, and more people seemed to be joining us all the time. As the square continued to fill with people, my small group continued to watch, not only the smokestacks, but the clock. We had a flight to catch. We needed to be on the last flight back to Sardegna and from St. Peter’s square that meant a walk to a subway, which would take us to Central Termini, Rome’s main train station, to catch a train to the airport, Fiumicino. This whole process takes about an hour if everything runs smoothly, which it rarely does, and the clock was ticking.
We waited and we watched. Watched for smoke, watched the crowd grow, watched the clock. Once we had missed the last subway that would get us comfortably to the airport, we started packing up camp, cameras still out, ready. We began walking through the square, toward the metro station, eyes still fixed above the roof of the Sistine Chapel. When we reached the pillars on the other side, the last steps before exiting the square, we looked again, hopefully, one last time, saw nothing and then……RAN!
Missing the last ‘comfortable’ subway meant that we now had to haul ass across Rome, be spot-on with our connections, and have a little luck at the airport check-in in order to make this plane. Since we didn’t have the money for an extra night in Rome or a new flight the next day, we ran. We ran and we hoped, although given the circumstances maybe praying was more appropriate.
I’ll save the suspense; we did make the flight. As I said, it took about an hour to get to the airport. As we were standing in line to check in, I looked up almost automatically from a day spent looking in that direction. I found a TV. Tuned to Italian news. Reporting images of black smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel.