The white smoke came at around 7pm Italian Time and we waited....and waited. It must have been almost an hour but the crowds, filling St Peter’s Square, down the via della Conciliazione to the Piazza Pia and Castel Sant’Angelo, seemed happy enough despite the intermittent rain.
And then something seemed to stir, lights came on and the proto-deacon emerged to tell us of the new pope. And it was....not the bloke we all thought.
Vatican watchers trying to get the news a few seconds early try to decipher the name from the Latin and when he said Giorgium we wondered if the slightly doddery Cardinal Touran of Bordeaux had got it wrong. Our ears were tuned for Angelum – for Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan.
But, as I have quoted before, the old saying is that he who goes into the Conclave as pope comes out a cardinal. It was said that Angel Scola went into the Conclave with 50 votes – you need 77 for election – and that if it were a short conclave it would be the favourite who won: who else could garner so many votes in so short a time?. It was further said that Scola could only be beaten by Marc Ouillet (Marcum), Odilo Scherer (Odilum?), or Sean O’Malley (Seanum, I suppose). We racked our brains for someone called George.
It was Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and he will take the name Francis. Initial reactions were that the Cardinals had played a blinder. They had looked to where the mass of worshippers was – South America. They knew that the main task of the papacy would be to sort out the Vatican, and they chose someone who knew the Curia without being a Curial insider. They had chosen someone who lives in a flat, not a palace, cooks his own food and goes to work by bus (although all that will have to stop now; the boneshaker Roman buses are enough to kill the old boy off).
The enthroning of Francis is so fraught with symbolism that people will still be reading the tealeaves years hence. He is the first Jesuit to become Pope since the Society’s founding in the mid-16th century. He is the first pope in 1,000 years to take a new name (John Paul doesn’t count since it was merely the names of his two predecessors): a new broom? Does Francis refer to the popular St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of Italy, by the way, or to St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits? Francis is the first South American pope and the first in a millennium not to be European.
A new pope starts with a huge well of optimism and confidence which will last a while but not for ever. Francis needs to reassure the faithful that the scandals of the past are over. His flock will want to see a few comfortable insiders transferred to difficult locations around the world and guilty senior men resigning, as Benedict told Keith O’Brien to do. His supporters will search for doctrinal purity and humble demeanour and should be satisfied. Beginning his speech with ‘Buona Sera’ – good evening, showed an informality which the crowd loved. The progressive Europeans are unlikely to be satisfied, and to those British who want to know if he is sound on the Falklands, the answer is he’s not.
To anyone who followed my own choice of Cardinal Sandri, I apologise. I did advise you not to bet. I got the country right, but that isn’t even an each-way result.
I believe Pope Francis represents a new beginning for the Vatican, and that he is just what the Church needs. I am not expecting a long papacy – he is 76 – but an exciting one. Despite the rain, it was a good night.