Personal Journey: At St. Peter's, drizzly, with a chance of smoke

The author and the sister discuss the weather, after a fashion, while awaiting the signal that a new pope has been chosen.
The author and the sister discuss the weather, after a fashion, while awaiting the signal that a new pope has been chosen. (RAY HITCHCOCK)
Posted: March 10, 2014

Black, white, pink . . . I just wanted to see smoke.

It was March 13, 2013. I was in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City awaiting smoke, smoke that would signal a new pope, or no new pope, or, maybe, a colorful statement by Catholic women protesters.

Little had I imagined four months earlier when I booked my first Road Scholar trip that a pope would resign in February, and then a conclave would convene, and then the eyes of the world would be on the Eternal City the very week I was there.

That Wednesday morning was free time on our itinerary, and my travel mates had bustling plans for shopping, and exploring, and going to out-of-the-way chapels to view exquisite artworks.

I'm a journalist, a newshound. I just wanted to see smoke. And the cardinals were meeting that morning. And they were voting. Twice.

Ray, a fellow Road Scholar, was eager to go to St. Peter's not for smoke, but for picture-taking in the cupola. So we partnered up, figured out the cheap public No. 64 bus, and were in the square by 8:45.

It was empty, and cold, and drizzly, but my goodness, it was St. Peter's, and the crummy weather didn't bother me a bit. Ray took pictures with his camera and my camera and then headed for the cupola (no line).

My first mission was to find the Sistine Chapel and the chimney. I looked and peered and peered and squinted, and finally located the teeny spout that looked about the size of a golf tee on the roof. It looked so much bigger on the news, and on the video screens in the square.

I took up a leaning spot against the railing around the central obelisk, and struck up conversation with an American couple, Navy personnel posted in Rome, who had driven an hour seeking history, and smoke. At one point Jeff stepped away to light a cigarette, and cheekily blew a nice white puff into the air for my camera.

The drizzle kept up, but people began streaming into the square, some wrapped in national flags and carrying large banners in many languages. Two nuns staked out some railing space next to me; we quickly learned that we didn't speak each other's language. But when the rain picked up and one nun nudged close to cover me with her umbrella, I was able to blurt out the Italian words for "thank you" and "rain," and she said something like Dio e buono (God is good). I think. Connection.

That's how it went from 9 o'clock on, chat, rain, gazing in awe at semicircles of saints . . . and then at 11:45, on the video screens, from the tiny golf tee, wisps, then a plume, then clouds of . . . what color is it?

I dredged up another Italian word, and looked at the nun standing next to me, and we uttered the word together, mine a question, hers a disappointed assertion: Nero. We had our smoke, and it was black.

Ray took pictures of me, smiling with my smoke.

That evening, as we dined convivially and drank wine, our group leader, a young Italian woman, summoned our attention as her smartphone beamed out news: "There is a pope!" We all raised our glasses and toasted Pope Whoever.

We had white smoke. We had a pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Papa Francesco. Pope Francis. Janice Ward, a copy editor at The Inquirer, writes from Westmont.

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