Local seminarian captures spirit of expectation as conclave voting begins
Story and photos by Deacon Michael Pierz
(Editor's note: Deacon Michael Pierz, a seminarian from the Diocese of Springfield, has been asked by Catholic Communications to provide firsthand accounts of the papal transition. He was involved in this morning's liturgy with the cardinals with several of his classmates from the North American College and was in St. Peter's Square when the smoke came out after the first ballot. He offers these reflections. He notes that in the picture from the square, the front of the basilica with the balcony in the loggia is already prepared and adorned in red for the new pope. On the right is the triangular building that is the Sistine Chapel. The smoke comes out thick but too dark against the night sky, although a closer image is visible in the video screen on the bottom right.)
ROME , Italy -- Gathered in the magnificent church that is St. Peter's Basilica, tens of thousands of faithful joined the cardinals in the opening Mass, "Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice." A steady stream of men vested in red chasubles and red zucchetti made their way solemnly through the basilica and around the confessio, the space where the bones of the apostle St. Peter himself are buried and above which the main papal altar stands. The chasubles are red for the same reason our parish priests wear red on Pentecost: to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit just as the first apostles "were all filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:4). Furthermore, the red zucchetti remind each of them that they have been set apart to be men of sacrifice, even to the shedding of their own blood.
Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell marked these two qualities we seek in the new pope at his Mass in St. Michael's Cathedral today: holiness and wisdom, "the ability to see with the eyes of faith what is going on in the world and in the church." With a call to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and to authentic humility and self-gift, the cardinals began this day in prayer together around St. Peter. One could even sense the power of the challenge ahead, as thunder rolled intermittently beyond the walls of the church in the world outside.
This evening, as a light rain came and went, and the cardinals had been closed "with key" (the origin of the term conclave) inside the Sistine Chapel for about two hours, St. Peter's Square began to fill up. The clock on the face of the basilica was ticking past 7 and many were looking to a small nondescript pipe standing on the roof of a triangular building right beside the great church. Easily gone unnoticed at any other time, it's this chimney that will give the sign of the cardinals' vote: black for no pope elected, white for yes.
The square was filled with many tens of thousands of people. Pockets of various nationalities, schools, and tourists milling about and staring up. There was a hushed sound of conversation and excitement, but people were attentive to not lose focus: any moment the smoke would billow. This was only the first vote, so the expectation was black, but we, all together in St. Peter's Square, with NAC seminarians, university classmates, nuns in long habits, tourists with full backpacks, and more, knew it was good to be there.
And then, just before 7:45, smoke began to rise up out of the chimney and catch the breeze. A strange sound came from the crowd, neither cheer, nor disappointment, but more like an expectant sigh that wishes it could linger longer. The smoke was black and cascaded thick from the roof. There was a joy that just couldn't be fully realized yet.
A flurry of pictures were being taken. Businessmen in Italian suits called their wives at home eagerly, telling them they were in the square and saw the smoke. Girls' school groups broke into a hymn. The American seminarians looked up with gratitude, recognizing the blessing it was to be there at that moment, this moment in the life of the church. We were not disappointed it was black, but rather proud to see the cardinals have cast their first vote -- proud that the Holy Spirit is informing these men to make an awesome choice for the church and for the world, proud that the pursuit of holiness and wisdom have captured our attention.