Last night I went to Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. I hoped to to see the black smoke of the papal conclave. I figured the dark puff would roil out from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and the sorry crowd would disperse into the dusk.
I heard the smoke would disperse around 4:30pm so I arrived at the Piazza at 4:00, wrapped in a cheap plastic poncho and sheltered by a pink Hello Kitty umbrella in the spring storm. A crowd amassed, a burgeoning tower of Babel between the many languages of lay people and nuns and priests and monastics of every order. Raindrops plopped steadily, soaking our feet and coats, and evening advanced. As the night grew colder and wetter the crowd ballooned, pushing toward Saint Peter’s towering basilica, lit grandly in the dusk. A high central window was draped in red velvet curtains, drawn closed. The vacant seat of the Vatican taunted us from on high.
We awaited the smoke.
When the 4:30pm smoke did not come we knew the cardinals must be deliberating tortuously. The hours dragged on and the storm deluged all over our clothes and cameras and iPods and biscotti. What could we do, pressed together facing a silent chimney, occluded from the secretive movements of Vatican nobility by a velvet curtain and two thousand years of mystery? We started to make friends. I stood with Guadalupe from Mexico City and Stefano from Emilia Romagna, northeast of Tuscany. They had both journeyed to Rome to pray for deliberating cardinals. We thought the delay was a bad sign: surely the smoke would be black, and our waterlogged vigil would be for naught.
I am not a Catholic. Two days ago I didn’t know what black or white smoke signified. I probably know more about Catholicism than the average non-Catholic, but most of my knowledge is really just hot air and speculation.
Growing up secular in San Diego, I only knew two Catholic girls, and when one of them told me that her religion had a man in charge whom she thought of as her spiritual father, I thought of him with the only reference point I had at the time for organizational leadership: this Catholic Pope must be like my dad, who was the executive director of the local YMCA. An important job, no doubt. Who else could organize the summer camps?
As the years wore on my understanding of the Pope increased in detail but not in gravity. The most frequent thought I had about Popes was that they always seemed extremely old, and of course I’m guilty of jokes about vestments and Popemobiles. A few years of working with Italian Protestants and Jews raised my awareness about the role of the papacy in ecumenical affairs, but still I was largely ignorant of the man and his holy post.
When Pope Benedict’s resignation and the subsequent conclave to replace him irrupted into my long-planned March 2013 trip to Rome, I knew I wanted to travel to the center of the city during the conclave. Since I am a religion researcher, and my primary fieldwork site is Italy, there’s no excuse for my ignorance about the Pope. So I wanted to watch the changing of the Vatican guard, from a front row seat. I wanted to feel the energy at Saint Peter’s. I wanted to understand something about Catholicism from the inside out. I wanted to know what it meant.
Here’s what it meant.
Stefano and I stood side by side in the rain, staring at the dormant flue on the Sistine roof, topped by a seagull who taunted us all with his jaunty perch on the Vatican chimney. We waited. We expected disappointment but we hoped for more. As the crowd gathered, excitement mounted. As the rain pounded and the sky darkened and the temperature dropped, suffering increased. As the hours passed, bellies grumbled. The more our conditions worsened the more we hoped for a reward of white smoke. As nonchalant and self-consciously non-Catholic as I felt when I had approached the square hours earlier, the longer I waited with the expectant faithful, the more we depended on each other for endurance. We stood in the downpour in praise of possibility. We made friends. We were bonded by hope, held in the grasp of promise. We were miserable, but radiantly so, knowing there was nowhere we would rather be, suffering together.
Stefano murmured a line from a poem by Cesare Pavese: Qualcuno ci ha mai promesso qualcosa? E allora perchè attendiamo? (Has anyone ever promised us anything? So why are we waiting?) The implicit answer is no, of course. No one had promised us anything–black smoke, white smoke, love, happiness, success. But still we impatiently, expectantly cast our eyes to the sky, demanding relief. We waited like we are always waiting, throughout our lives, for deliverance or recompense or at least for meaning. We are not assured such deliverance, and almost certainly not in the forms we desire or vainly wish for ourselves. But in the Piazza, as in the corners of our hearts at day’s end, we also knew if we ultimately arrived at disappointment–if the smoke billowed black–we would have journeyed together through an experience of anticipation that was itself buoyant and arduous and meaningful. It would have been worth it, no matter the outcome. We were conscious of the preciousness and precariousness of the moment. The probability was null that Guadalupe and Stefano and I, perfect companions for this soppy sojourn, would ever again converge. We knew the moment was historical–even marked by black smoke, we were at least on the periphery of history, together, part of something much bigger than ourselves and much bigger than a particular moment in time. And a rich memory is a precious thing. We organize our identities around such hot spots in our memory banks, and I knew this would be an oft-invoked chapter of my narrative. However hued the Vatican smoke would be, it was already a part of me.
Even fulfilled by longing itself, and fulfilled by our longing together, the longer we waited the more we felt we deserved white smoke. Stefano lamented, “We’ve waited too long for black smoke! Give us white smoke, please God, will it for us, please!” What misery, this rainy nighttime waiting–and yet our hope drew us forward, kept us upright, kept us together, fed by anticipation and longing. We were sustained by faith in a thing hoped for but not yet seen. And each thing hoped for–white smoke–preceded another, greater hope–the white robes of the new Pope–and then the bright white infinity of the fulfilled Kingdom–and then…oh, what then…?
FINALLY SMOKE! A ghostly wisp–was it black? Grey? As the swirl swelled into a cloud of white smoke the crowd exploded into a frenzy. Kisses, tears, strangers hugging, singing, flags from every country thrust frenetically into the thinning rain. A new pope! A new pope! Viva Il Papa! Grazie, Dio! We have a Pope again! We have a holy father! Sanctus!
I looked around confused–Don’t you want to know who the Pope is before you celebrate? I realized it didn’t matter. For this was the election of the new hope–particulars aside, these people had regained their sacred focal point. They were bestowed new promise, a new possibility, a new advent. So was I.
I don’t have a new Pope. But I have a newly sacred sense of the Catholic imagination, of the gravity and value of advent in and of itself. I felt the relieving benediction of a new age, in the figure of a new spiritual father. I felt the very promise of promise. Because possibility itself, even yet unrealized, is life-giving. The fire of longing is vitalizing, preceding deliverance, drawing us dynamically forward through our harsh conditions on the sovereign wings of pure potential.
Unless you are there you cannot quite imagine what it is to feel the sky break clear over Saint Peter’s Basilica as a newly-white-robed Jesuit from Argentina steps prayerfully onto a high velvet-draped balcony and raises his hand, heavy with a new signet ring, to bless all people. You cannot quite imagine the beautiful sound of hundreds of thousands of voices in languages without number, together murmuring Our Father in babbling rhythm. You cannot quite imagine the incandescence of that enormous cathedral, dissolving from its highest reaches all the disappointments and confusion of a leaderless church, universal suffering resolved into one bright moment of fulfilled promise: that we are radiantly blessed together in fellowship and hope. We are forgiven for our weaknesses and errors. We have been cleaned by the long deluge and we are back on track. We are created anew. We are whole. Sanctus!
No, you cannot quite imagine it. But perhaps you can do better. Perhaps you do not need to imagine it because you already know: the grip of your own sacred hope, the propulsion of a redemptive promise. When you touched the hot white heat of realized possibility. When you fell in love. When you held your child. When your heart was full and you were in the right place. When you were forgiven, blessed, and beautiful. When you arrived. When you were alive.
Yes: I think you know.