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Issue Date:  April 29, 2005

Waiting for smoke and bells


I don’t get to Rome often, but when I do I always experience it as an especially aggressive mixture of the sacred and the profane. I know that mixture can be found anywhere -- it is life, no? -- but here the sacred seems especially so, and if the profane is no more or less than anywhere else, perhaps it just seems so because the center of attention is an enormous cathedral attached to the pope’s house.

I think it’s more than that, though, and my hunch is that it has to do with an Italian nonchalance that doesn’t make too big a deal of anything, especially rules and religious ceremony. I remember covering a conference once in the early 1980s on the new Code of Canon Law. After several hours of experts parsing phrase after phrase, dissecting the text to find out if lay people had risen in the esteem of canon law or if nuns had new stature under the new statutes, an expert who had lived in Rome for many years was called on to do a summation. He congratulated everyone all around and made note of their various contributions, but he ended with a note about something they’d missed: “the Italian shrug.” It was his way of explaining the difference between how we, the descendants of English Common Law, and Italians view such matters.

While Americans want to obey every letter of every law they agree to, and get upset if the law doesn’t match with their ability to uphold it, Italians have quite a different view. They want the best law possible. The ideal law. And then they shrug, knowing no one will obey all the laws perfectly.

So perhaps it was no surprise here, where things seem always in a state of mild chaos, at the relative ease with which this city handled a sudden influx of millions of mourners, tourists and assorted curious when John Paul II’s body lay in state and for his funeral.

I arrived in Rome as John Paul’s funeral Mass was ending. I tried to get to St. Peter’s Square, but by that time it was sealed off blocks away. When it ended I took the 10-minute walk from the NCR office down Via Gregorio VII.

Young travelers were still curled up in sleeping bags at midday, other groups were singing, some who apparently had been here long enough to establish substantial campsites looked especially weary. The Bernini colonnade, those parenthetical structures in the long camera shots, at street level was lined with bright blue portable toilets. Sacred and whatever.

Within hours the street sweeping crews had cleaned up most of the area around St. Peter’s, and most of the mourners and tourists had taken off. The buses that lined block after block on my walk down to the square were gone.

The most striking thing for me during the interregnum was the amount of talk that went on about something no one could know much about -- who was going to be pope. For days that’s all that was talked about, especially among journalists, on the job or off. I met a group, including Kim Lawton of “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” Debbie Mason of Religion Newswriters Association, Michael Paulson of The Boston Globe and Douglas Todd of The Vancouver Sun, and we all wanted to know who each other had as front-runner.

It was all inconclusive. But what was driven home after a few days of this was that all of Rome, it seemed, was intently focused on 115 men. As I wrote elsewhere, there were no women. Half the church had nothing to do with this. I knew that fact, certainly, before I got to Rome, but the week brought it home with a force I hadn’t anticipated.

Another strange element to this week was the amount of time, energy, personnel and resources all news organizations spent covering … what? It wasn’t an event, it was discrete liturgical functions and closed discussions leading up to an event, and that event itself was held behind closed doors. During the time leading to the conclave, one might be able to grab a moment or two with this or that cardinal if one was really well connected (which I am not), but as John Allen (who is) frankly reported on our Web site and on the air for CNN, the best one could report was a snippet of conversation with, at most, a few cardinals about their impressions.

I happened to be on the scaffolding around St. Peter’s Square doing an interview with the CBC (Canada) just as the smoke rose from the chimney the first night of the conclave. The packed piazza went crazy and the host of the show and I spent several minutes trying to decide, as was everyone else, whether the smoke was black or white. Finally, we determined that since no bells had rung and as the smoke looked blacker all the time against the twilight sky, we’d assume there was no first-ballot choice.

The next day, the morning went by as everyone expected. But the nervous chatter -- the noise of speculation anted up a bit in the afternoon, though no one expected a winner soon. The game became trying to imagine what groups or factions were gathering and how many ballots might be required. In my selfish moments, I must admit, my concern for the good of the church was in competition with my concern for the good of the paper -- I wanted a winner in time for our Thursday deadline.

No one expected to have as much time as we got in the end. Tuesday afternoon, CNN flashed live shots of smoke far too early for the cardinals to have taken two votes. So the suspicion immediately was that something momentous was underway. We kept watching the smoke on screen for a few minutes as the newsfolks on camera tried to figure out whether it was white or black. That’s when Shannon, John Allen’s wife, who’s become an encyclopedia of cardinal facts, stuck her head in the door and suggested we run to the square.

We did, literally, and got there just in time to squeeze into a corner of the crowd far enough toward the center to see the window. Then we waited, for about 40 minutes, as we got squeezed farther into the crowd.

Cheryl Hollis and husband, Robert Marsico, and 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, pushed in on the edge of the crowd. They’re from Ohio; she’s a lawyer, he’s a doctor; he’s Catholic, she isn’t. They had arrived in Rome (he was attending a conference) 20 minutes earlier and heard about the smoke and wanted to see history made. No favorite candidates. They really didn’t know any of the players.

And then there was a rustling behind the curtains at the balcony. The crowd went crazy. Then more movement and finally the words: “Habemus papam!”

Tom Roberts is NCR editor. He can be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005

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