Editor’s note: Eric Ramirez, SJ is a student of theology in Rome. Here he shares his experience of being part of yesterday’s throng as it heard the results of the papal election.
It was too soon. None of us thought there would be white smoke tonight. Thursday morning, for sure, but not tonight.
We were so confident of this fact that – having just finished a meeting – we decided to go out to eat. And as we waited underneath our umbrellas at the bus stop, large groups of people started to head our way. And then we heard: “fumo bianco!” White smoke.
In shock, we jumped on the first bus bound for St. Peter’s.
The bus was slow and crowded, and, since we were stuck anyway, we gave up on public transit and joined those racing along the wet cobble streets. We were surrounded by Romans young and old, all trying to navigate the ancient paths of the city. When we finally reached the height of the first bridge that crosses the Tiber we could finally see, on all sides, people being drawn to St. Peter’s Square.
It was while crossing the Tiber that I felt the emotion start to well up within me. Ever since I was young I had wanted to be present at the announcing of a new pope. And now it was happening.
I surely wasn’t alone. This was not the first time the citizens of Rome had raced across town toward St. Peter’s. Yes, things have changed as centuries have passed: the announcement was made via popealarm.com rather than church bells; we fought cars on the street and not horses. Still, we were retracing steps that Christians had trod for millennia.
Racing down the major thoroughfare into Vatican City (and after being quickly screened by security), we parked ourselves next to the giant obelisk that dominates the Square. And then we waited.
All around us, Romans were gathering. Whole families were present. Dads hoisted kids on shoulders. Kids texted and snapped photos while moms wrapped them tighter in scarves. The flags of different countries colored the landscape while the screens of cellphones and iPads created a small sea of illuminated blue.
We soaked it in – the energy, the drama, the uncertainty; all of it.
When the lights behind the giant window flickered on everyone cheered. Now, I’m from west Texas, and part of being from west Texas means that I’ve gone to my fair share of packed football games and joined in my fair share of raucous cheering. But when, a few minutes later, we heard the words “Habemus papam!” the cries were louder than for any completed Hail Mary I’d ever heard.
And then the name: Georgium Bergoglio. It had happened. A Jesuit was now pope. It was not possible. We had always been taught that; we believed it. A Jesuit pope was just not possible.
Our small group gathered around the obelisk – Jesuits all – was so shocked that we missed the name he took. But we couldn’t miss it when – after the cardinal had gone inside – the crowds erupted in “Viva Papa!” Then the chanting of his new name rang out from young people all over the square: “Fran-ces-co! Fran-ces-co! Fran-ces-co!”
All that was left was Francesco’s arrival.
And when arrive he did we cheered anew, all together, and then quickly hushed – eager to hear the new pontiff’s first words to the world. They were these: “Buona sera.” Good evening.
It was a wonderful night in Rome.
Though it had been raining the last few days, in the piazza we had clear skies. I’ve attended many papal events since my arrival here, but have never felt the strong sense of community that I felt tonight in the piazza. My initial impression of Francis was simply one of humility and sensitivity. He clearly showed an eagerness to engage and be near the people of God not simply as a leader, but as a brother.
Yes, he was far away, up high in his balcony with a small army of Swiss Guards between him and us. But when Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome, began his ministry and led us in prayer heads across the piazza bowed together.
And as he asked for our blessing, and invited us to walk with him on the road of love and fraternity, even far away, high up on the balcony, he seemed curiously close to all of us gathered below .