ROME — A collective cheer rose from beneath thousands of umbrellas, as the soaked masses who had crammed into St. Peter’s Square saw the white smoke billow from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
The basilica bells rang out, tens of thousands of phone cameras flashed, and a flock of white birds flew over the roof of the chapel.
Devout Catholics, idle tourists, people who had traveled thousands of miles to be here, people who just happened to be in Rome to witness history in the making — all of them had waited in the rain for hours just for this moment.
It was 7:06 p.m., and a new pope had been elected.
“I’ve got to call home, I’ve got to call Jersey,” cried out Margaret Lynaugh, of Ridgemont, N.J., who had been waiting in the rain for each of the votes since the conclave started. Just moments earlier, her husband, Joe, warned her that it could be a long haul.
Now, the crowd had to wait for the new pope’s identity. Brazilians, Argentines, Americans — people whose countries had a cardinal thought to be in consideration — waved their national flags over the throng. “I hope it’s one of the Americans,” an Italian man said to a group of friends.
The bells rang for another five minutes as the crowd moved gradually closer to the basilica to watch the red-curtained balcony where the new pope would appear. Some marveled at their lucky arrival in a city so rich in ancient history at a time when history is being made.
“We came here originally to study ancient Rome,” said Nick Gresens, who teaches at the University of Rochester and who had brought a group of students. “Now, we’re getting live history.”
Not far away, a handful of Americans were trying to find a decent vantage point, clawing among other onlookers for a spot on the base of the obelisk that rises from the center of St. Peter’s Square.
“We’re accidental tourists. We were here on vacation, and now we’re actually getting to see something,” said Michelle Kelley of Houston as she shepherded two of her young children into place. Her husband, Phil, who hails from Foxborough, lingered behind with the couple’s toddler, and thoughts of another selection on his mind.
“As of about two hours ago, Wes Welker had not been resigned yet,” Phil Kelley said, referring to the star wide receiver. Asked about the other important matter of the day, Kelley smiled and said, “I’m hoping for [Cardinal Sean P.] O’Malley but I don’t know yet. Is it out?”
It was not, but it soon was.
At 8:12 p.m., the crowd roared when the red curtains parted on a balcony on St. Peter’s Basilica, and a cardinal stepped through and announced “Habemus Papam!”
We have a pope!
When the cardinal revealed, in Latin, that his Argentine colleague Jorge Bergoglio, a 76-year-old Jesuit, had been chosen, and that Bergoglio had chosen the name Francis, some in the crowd cried out “Francesco!” Someone else shouted to a group of friends, “The Argentine! Not the American! What a surprise!”
“Brothers and sisters, good evening,” the new pope said in Italian after stepping onto the balcony. The ovation of cheers turned to laughter when Francis quipped, in Italian, “You know that it was the duty of the conclave to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one.”
But the raucous gathering became completely hushed after Francis asked for a silent prayer of blessing for himself.
As the square slowly emptied, Charles Shaughnessy, of Cimarron, Kan., one of about 100 students at the University of Dallas who happened to be in Rome and ended up witnessing history, still waved the US flag.
“We’re just lucky to be here, the luckiest time to be in Rome,” Shaughnessy said.
Was he disappointed that an American was not chosen?
“I'm proud to be American, I’m proud to be a Catholic, it’s a great time in history,” he said. “It's got to be the right choice. Whoever they picked.”David Filipov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.