The Night We Got A New Pope
This week five years ago, every Catholic journalist in the world was antsy as we awaited the white smoke to rise from the chimney of the Sistine chapel.
Over the previous weeks we had covered Pope Benedict XVI’s shock resignation and speculated about the identity of the new pope.In that time, I was interviewed by world media about my reaction to the historic resignation of the old pope, and about who the new pope would be.
In that time, I was interviewed by world media about my reaction to the historic resignation of the old pope, and about who the new pope would be. On the latter point, the burning question, of course, was whether there would be an African pope. I couldn’t see that happening, though Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson was counted among the favourites.
But nobody could really predict what would happen. The Daily Telegraph in England confidently predicted that we’d get a “Pope Benedict clone”, but the same article also made reference to Pope John Paul II’s predecessor John VI — whose 27-month reign ended in the year 705. In times like these, it’s better to stick with Catholic journalism.
Everybody knew that Cardinal Angelo Scola was the papabile (“popable”) of the conservatives. The name of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines was traded as the middle-ground choice, but he was still young, in cardinal terms, and had received his red hat only recently. Other names mentioned were Cardinals Marc Ouellet from Canada (who reportedly would be in second place, behind Scola, after the first round voting) and Odilo Scherer from Brazil.Surely not Bergoglio! He’d come second in the 2005 conclave, and at 76 was too old. His time had passed, surely.
In truth, many names were traded. It was going to be Scola vs Pretty Much Anybody. A day or two before the conclave, the widely respected Catholic journalist John Allen Jr began mentioning Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.
Surely not Bergoglio! He’d come second in the 2005 conclave, and at 76 was too old. His time had passed, surely.
I was familiar with Bergoglio’s name and knew a few things about his reputation as a doctrinal conservative archbishop, and as a humble pastor. And I knew that he always looked quite glum, or at least solemn, in photos.
And so we awaited the white smoke. “Please elect a new pope before our deadline,” I implored the cardinals in my mind, maybe also issuing a nudging prayer to God.Talk had been that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger might be elected. I couldn’t imagine it. Too controversial and too divisive, I thought.
The previous conclave in 2005 had been stressful. That had been my first real papal election (the time before that, in 1978, I was barely pubescent).
Talk had been that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger might be elected. I couldn’t imagine it. Too controversial and too divisive, I thought.
No white smoke had appeared yet when I turned up at e.tv’s studios for an interview on the papal election. On my way to make-up (just a bit of powder so that the face won’t glare under the spotlight) I received a call: “Ratzinger is the new pope.”
I had a few minutes to digest that news. Instead of talking about the possible popes, I now had to talk about one whose election, all indications to the contrary notwithstanding, I had thought unlikely. I might have looked good on TV, but I wouldn’t describe my appearance that night as the most sparkling of my career.When Fr Russell suddenly said there was white smoke, I had goosebumps.
Now, on March 13, 2013, almost exactly a month after Pope Benedict had announced his intention to resign, everything was more relaxed. That Wednesday evening I sat in my study at home and listened to Fr Russell Pollitt SJ and Chris Busschau discussing the conclave on Radio Veritas. When Fr Russell suddenly said there was white smoke, I had goosebumps.
Within minutes the phone rang: eNCA, the 24-hours news channel, sought my opinion. I would stay on the phone with them for two hours, going on and off air, and on again.
Eventually the doors on the balcony on St Peter’s basilica opened, revealing that amber background. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, protodeacon of the College of Cardinals, announced the new pope. Still hanging on the phone, I could not hear the TV properly. “Did he say Bergoglio?” I asked my wife. “Yes, something like that.”Then this new pope greeted the crowds with a rather bashful “Buona sera” (“Good evening”), and asked them to bless him before he would bless them.
Now I had to calculate quickly for talking points. The new pope had taken the name Francis. I knew that was a first, plus, you know, St Francis. Talking point. He’s Argentinian; recognition for southern hemisphere. Talking point. He is concerned about the poor. Talking point. Came second in 2005. Talking point. And so on.
Then this new pope greeted the crowds with a rather bashful “Buona sera” (“Good evening”), and asked them to bless him before he would bless them.
I knew instantly that I would love this pope, that this pontiff with the slightly goofy smile was going to be my kind of guy. And I knew that he’d be good copy for the newspaper
In the five years since that euphoric night, Pope Francis has exceeded virtually all of my expectations, as a superb leader and as a newsmaker. May God bless him!