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Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Waiting for the Pope

Pat Megley, Cornell in Rome

visiting student from Williams College

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013, around 5:10 pm.

I’m standing beneath a column in the southernmost of the two colonnades embracing St. Peter’s Square. From here, looking out diagonally across the piazza, between the corner of the facade of the Basilica and the Papal Apartments, I can see the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

I’ve been here about half an hour. The sky, though overcast and brushed with rain clouds, is bright. St. Peter’s “Square” (actually a flattened circle) is a dark sea of umbrellas. A few flags wave, including an American flag, which strikes me; it calls to mind a 4th of July parade, an odd reference point for the scene before me. The rain, off and on all day, has softened to a drizzle.

Back in the colonnade, the spaces between the inner pairs of columns are filling with onlookers. There is a light but steady stream of people meandering along the corridor. It’s not as packed as I thought it might be. The atmosphere is expectant, but far from electric. The field of umbrellas out in the piazza, all rooted in place for an as-yet-undetermined duration, lend a sense of calm that balances whatever movement there is back here in the colonnade.

A few minutes ago, a reporter for Spiegel Online named Julie approached me, apparently struck by the sight of a foreigner bent over an intermediate Italian textbook. She asked me a few questions, including why I was here, and I thought for a moment. Why am I here?

Above all, for the same reason as everyone else: to see a bit of history take place.

Nearby, a couple pecks softly at each other’s lips like a refined version of a mother bird feeding her young. It’s a few minutes past 5:30.


5:40. The spotlights atop the colonnades have just come on, adding a touch of prime-time aura. The corridor of the colonnade is filling; people stop to watch and wait.

A seagull has perched itself on the small chimney that protrudes from the Sistine Chapel and from which the result of the next vote–black smoke means no winner, white smoke means a new pope–will be announced.

The murmur of banter, barely background noise before, has picked up. Beneath the snatches of nearby conversation there is a sound like the rumbling of a distant ocean.

I wonder if that seagull on the roof of the Chapel knows how many people are looking at it.


5:50. A slowly-whirring cyclone of birds above the Basilica.

A few minutes past 6. The man on standing next to me is on the phone.

“Pronto. Pronto.”


Next to me stands a bespectacled young man wearing a clerical collar under his windbreaker. I turn to him.

“Mi scusi, padre, ma che pensa?”

He shrugs slightly and smiles. “Non lo so.” Who does one think at a moment like this?

We fall into conversation. His name is Moritz (like Maurizio, he adds helpfully) and he’s from Vienna. He’s in his final year of studying theology at a university here in Rome–a university that, like my own high school, is associated with the Jesuits. I ask if he is associated with a particular order, and he says no; he explains that he can choose between entering an order and serving in a diocese, and that he hopes to do the latter upon returning to Vienna.

While the colonnade continues to fill, it is still far from thronged. I comment on this, and Moritz ventures that the drizzle has kept away the crowds. We wonder when the next fumo will announce the result of the latest vote. I point out that the cardinals have to have their dinner; this is Italy, after all. Moritz chuckles and agrees that the food here is very good. I ask how the food in Austria is and he remarks that Austria is not as known for its cuisine.

I ask when he decided to become a priest. He says that for him it wasn’t a difficult decision.

We continue to watch and wait as the sky grows dark.


A few minutes past 7. I reach into my coat pocket for a piece of pizza bianca and offer some to Moritz. He shakes his head, murmuring his thanks. I slip the piece into my mouth.

Out in the piazza, a cheer erupts: the roar of a huge crowd. The giant projection screens show smoke billowing from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel. I raise my eyes to the roof. In the darkness, it is hard to make out the color of the smoke. But after a few moments, it is unmistakable: white.

Cheers echo across the piazza; all around us people clap. Moritz and I join in.

“C’e un Papa,” he breathes. There is something new in his voice.


Now the colonnade grows thick; people pace the rapidly filling corridor and walk faster, swiveling their heads intently, seeking out a line of vision to the central balcony of the Basilica. Behind the colonnade, crowds race from the surrounding streets towards the piazza.

The video screens, which for hours have remained fixed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, now switch back and forth between close-ups of individual onlookers, smiling and waving flags (there are many more flags now) seeing themselves up on the screen and waving back, and wide shots of the piazza. For the first time, I realize how huge the crowd is: it fills the piazza and stretches off into the distance down Via della Conciliazione.

Moritz steps away and takes out a cell phone. He spends a few minutes in silence, apparently waiting on a call that won’t go through. When he returns, I ask who he was trying to call. His sister, he responds. I have a sister too, I tell him, and also two brothers.

I turn to the man on my other side, a Roman, and ask him if he’s seen anything like this before. He has, twice before. He explains that when Cardinal Wojtyła was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978, the first non-Italian pope in centuries, it was a shock. “Nobody knew the name,” the man says. On the other hand, when Cardinal Ratzinger emerged as Benedict XVI in 2005, it was the expected outcome.

A procession of Swiss Guards onto the steps of the Basilica stretches on and on; and yet, when the cardinals appear at the side balconies of the Basilica, I am surprised to find that over an hour has passed since the smoke. It is not the same place as this afternoon; the colonnade’s latest arrivals, jostling for space, angling for a view of the Basilica and talking animatedly to each other, are but a small reflection of the new energy throughout the piazza, which emits a volley of cheers whenever anyone of note appears.

And then the tall red curtains behind the central balcony part, a cardinal emerges, pronounces some words which are lost in the noise of the crowd, and announces the name of the new pope–Francesco–before retreating behind the curtain.

Who is this pope? No one seems to have caught the cardinal’s name. Next to Moritz, an impromptu conclave of priests and scruffy-haired youths speculate. Names are thrown out. O’Malley from Boston. A woman wielding a smart phone announces that a Cardinal Bergoglio from Argentina has been elected. “An Argentine,” one of the youths nods approvingly.

Above the piazza, the curtains part again, and the pope emerges–a tall, thin figure in white. He stands, looking out at the crowd, and remains in that position, still, for a long while. The cheers roll in waves.

And then he begins to speak. He offers a series of thanks, including one to his predecessor, Benedict XVI. My Italian is such that I struggle to absorb the pope’s words, but I try to catch as much as I can. He has a nice voice.

Then he leads the crowd in prayer–the Our Father, the Hail Mary. I try to keep with the Italian and mostly listen to the words spoken in unison by the pope and the countless gathered before him, to the many timbres combining as one resonating voice. I have never heard so many people gathered in prayer. In the intimacy of a shared moment, I am once more struck by a sense of sheer scale.

The pope concludes and steps back, smiling down at the crowd. A chant starts and gains strength as it echoes around the piazza: “FRAN – CES – CO! FRAN – CES – CO!” The Roman man turns to me, grinning, and recalls that when Benedict was elected, the chant went “Rat – zin – ger!”

The pope turns, as if to leave, and then turns back to offer a few more words. “Pregate per me,” he says. Pray for me.


I shake hands with Moritz, and we wish each other good luck with the remainder of our respective stays in Rome. Around us, people are flowing out into the larger streams exiting the piazza.

As I walk up the road behind the colonnade, I look back. For the first time, I see for myself the crowd, a single mass moving on foot, and it seems vast beyond counting.

All of them gathered to greet one man, whoever he may be.

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