Waiting for the sun…and a Pope

Michelle Hough waiting for the white smoke that hails a new Pope in St Peter's Square.

Michelle Hough waiting for the white smoke that hails a new Pope in St Peter’s Square.

By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis

It was a good day for umbrella sales people but a bad day for a Pope. As in no Pope was elected during the morning of the second day of the conclave.

No one expected a Pope to be elected so early but me and about 10,000 others huddled in St Peter’s Square in the rain waiting for the smoke to come out of the chimney.

So, about this chimney… it’s tiny. If you’re expecting something Santa could get down, think again. Even a pigeon would have trouble squeezing down there to make a home. Such a tiny thing the focus of so much attention…

There were hundreds of TV crews from all over the world around the square, on top of St Peter’s colonnade and on all available terraces. Just one big carbon footprint waiting for something to happen.

As I waited for the smoke I sat next to an elderly Roman lady on the railings of one of the fountains in the square. She said she’d come to Saint Peter’s because it just felt more spiritual than being at home.

To be honest, I don’t know if it was the weather but apart from the image of the chimney projected on giant screens, it could have been any other day at the Vatican. I expected more people, some singing and a general feeling of expectation.

Despite the banality of the wait, there was something very special and unique going on. It was the first time in centuries that a Pope was being elected while another Pope was still alive. It was the first time that a conclave was taking place in the age of social media. An age when any piece of information or photo can travel from one person to the whole world in seconds, making everything seem more immediate. But the most special thing was that the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world was about to be elected.

For me, it is my second conclave but it is the first in which I actually know one of the participants. I’d watched Caritas president Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga swearing his oath on TV yesterday. It was a strange feeling seeing someone you know, someone who’s so down-to-earth and easy to get on with, taking part in such an ancient ritual in the Sistine Chapel.

As expected, black smoke rather than white billowed out at midday. I asked a Chinese seminarian studying in Rome who was standing next to me to take a photo of me with the big screen and the chimney-ette in the background.

We got chatting and when he learned I worked for Caritas, he told me he’d been to Caritas Hong Kong once. He said he was hoping ultimately to become a trappist – the monks who take a vow of silence – so that he could dedicate his life to spiritual reflection.

As with everyone I meet at the moment, I asked him who he thought was going to be the next Pope. No comment. Like the cardinal electors, he will turn his thoughts inward to prayer so that the right man is chosen to guide Catholics across the globe for years to come.


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