With the Mass of the Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry in St. Peter’s Square on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, the period marking the resignation of one pope and the election of another drew to a close. Before I close up my laptop, however, I want to record a few of the events that didn't make it into other blogs — my lasting memories of these days.
Social media reigned supremeIt was a privilege to be able to report on these events for Our Sunday Visitor on Twitter and by blog as well as in the OSV Newsweekly. In some ways Twitter was my running diary of the events as they took place. The only problem was that whenever two or three (hundred thousand) were gathered in Francis's name, Twitter ground to a halt around St. Peter’s Square.
Eight years ago was an election that was marked by blogging and of course cell phone calls. Once the white smoke was seen on April 19, cell contact collapsed quickly as everyone attempted to call friends, family ("Ciao, mamma. C'e' la fumata bianca!") and newsrooms.
This election was the first in which social media reigned supreme. While Twitter was of functional value when events were slow, at those peak moments — such as the appearance of smoke — the only really strong Twitter feeds were coming from people who were some distance away and watching events on television.
That said, the stream of information on Twitter was amazing. Catholic News Service's Rome Bureau, for one, did an excellent job of virtually translating press conferences and talks on the fly and tweeting highlights as they happened. Videos and photos were posted to Facebook and Twitter as quickly as the data networks would allow, and moments that flashed by on a television screen could now be repackaged as a tweet and saved for posterity.
Lest anyone think that social media got too serious with this election, it should be noted that Twitter handles were created immediately for the Sistine Chapel's makeshift chimney (@PapalSmokeStack) on Tuesday and, on Wednesday, for the rather brazen seagull (@ConclaveSeagull) who perched on top of the chimney while the square waited in breathless anticipation to find out if he would be transformed into a crow, should the smoke be black.
Italian televisionOne moment of note on Italian television came when journalists were scrambling to fill time between the white smoke and the appearance on the balcony of the new pope. While other Italian journalists were opining hopefully that the new pope would be the Italian Angelo Scola, Alessandro Banfi said he didn't know who the new pope would be, but that his name would be Francis. He was right, of course.
How was the smoke?Speaking of smoke, that was an obsession of sorts after the greyish muck that had been released to mark the election of Benedict. The Vatican had clearly invested in smoke improvement, using chemicals rather than just ballots and hay to make darn sure that black was black and white was white. Indeed, after the only vote in the early evening of Tuesday, March 12, the smoke poured forth with such abundant blackness that it looked a bit like the dementors from Harry Potter were scrambling out of the chimney.
After the election of the pope, U.S. journalists trooped up to the Pontifical North American College (NAC), the U.S. seminary in Rome that looms above the Vatican, hoping for a press conference with the U.S. cardinal electors. Cardinal Timothy Dolan finally obliged to hold one for the national press, but he asked the first question: "How was the smoke?"
Under a pink umbrellaThe day of the election had not been a sterling one for me. I had lost rosaries, a map, a guidebook and an umbrella at some point during all the rushing from square to media center and back. As the rain came down one more time, I bought an umbrella from a street vendor so I could stay dry in the square. It was only after I had walked on with my over-priced purchase that I realized it was pink.
In what was another stroke of spectacularly bad timing, my phone died while I was waiting for the new pope to be announced. Four hours in the square, of which about three-and-a-half were in the rain under my pink umbrella, had left me cold, hungry, tired and incommunicado. Along with others, I dutifully trooped up to the NAC in hopes of an interview, but first I had to charge my phone.
In search of an outlet, I ended up in the laundry room, near piles of dirty clerical clothes waiting to be washed, sitting on the floor near an outlet and talking with first my wife and then a journalist back home who was interviewing me. It was not as I dreamed it would be, but I was able to get the phone charged up enough to at least function.
Food and cheersMy second priority after a battery charge was food. For this I am grateful to Tod Tamberg, the spokesman for the L.A. Archdiocese. He had already been at the NAC for a few weeks and knew his way around the building. He led me to the seminary dining hall. The only food available was dry cereal and milk, which was how we found ourselves feasting on Froot Loops at 10 p.m. After nine hours without food, never had cereal tasted so good.
One more great memory from that night involved the seminarians themselves. Excited about the election of the new pope (even though few people really knew who he was), they welcomed back their cardinal champions with cheers, clapping and applause. It was a boisterous moment that Cardinal Dolan, for one, clearly enjoyed as he accepted their congratulations and shook their hands.
A different kind of popeEvents after the night of Pope Francis' election tumble together: His trip to St. Mary Major and then going to Casa del Clero to pay his bill cemented his reputation as a different kind of pope. Then he met with the journalists in a scheduled audience that was both moving and groundbreaking. He explained why he chose his name, he petted a Seeing Eye dog and, out of respect for non-believers in the audience — an assumption that suggests what he may think about many journalists — he did not extend a spoken apostolic blessing to them. This was tremendously disappointing to some of the Catholic journalists, but I never heard if it made any of the non-believers feel any better.
A pope of the peopleThe next day was his visit to his parish church, St. Anne's, which is near the famous Porta S. Anna, the gate that many tourists wander into by mistake to the right of St. Peter's Square. Not only did this underscore Pope Francis' presentation of himself as a pastor, but it thrilled the Italians — both those who attend this rather small church and those waiting behind barriers to catch a glimpse of him.
When he finished shaking hands with each parishioner, and then walked over to shake the hands of those behind the barriers, he must have given his security detail a heart attack. But the Italians themselves were ecstatic. "He is one of us, a pope of the people," one said.
What followed was the largest crowd I had ever been stuck smack dab in the middle of: 150,000 people (give or take) to hear his first Angelus address. I was within 75 yards of the outskirts of St. Peter’s Square when I found myself absolutely imprisoned by the press of bodies. It was a claustrophobe's nightmare. I could not see the pope. I could barely hear the pope. Yet somehow it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience because of the festive mood of the crowd that was clearly excited by their pontiff.
Genuine, movingThe Mass of Inauguration personally was memorable for two reasons. The first was when the pope stopped his jeep tour of the square before the Mass to embrace a man who was seriously handicapped, perhaps paralyzed. When Pope Francis descended from his vehicle and touched and embraced the man, I thought it confirmed all the reports we had received of his washing of the feet of AIDS victims and drug addicts. Indeed, I thought immediately of St. Francis embracing the leper. The pope's actions seemed genuine, particularly because he did not simply bless him, but embraced him.
Moving also was the fact that I was able to be in the square itself for Communion.
Eight years ago I had been up on the colonnade looking down on the Mass of Pope Benedict. It was a bird's-eye view, literally. This time, after getting to the media center at 6:30 a.m., I was able to close up my computer and go out to the square itself. I did not expect to find it so moving to receive Communion, but it was. Perhaps it was simply that I had thwarted the odds of not being able to receive at all. But at that moment, surrounded by priests and nuns and lay people, celebrating the start of a new pontificate, I felt in communion. It was a Catholic moment, one of many I won’t forget from this experience.