When the Bells Rang, Rome Ran

«Habemus Papam!» Electrified the City

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 21, 2005 (Zenit.org).- After a roller-coaster ride of emotions and events, Rome regained her equilibrium by Wednesday. The morning after the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica was bathed in golden sunlight after weeks of clouds and rain.

I went down to the tomb of John Paul II that morning, and near the grave of St. Peter, a single beam of sunlight was pouring in. It reinforced the idea that the See of St. Peter had a new occupant to illuminate the way for the faithful.

Coming back out into the square, the sound of singing resounded in the colonnade. The giant monitors were broadcasting the new Pope’s first Mass in the Sistine Chapel. Romans and foreigners en route to work, tours or school stopped to watch. The square was filled with peaceful smiles, while in the city people were noticeably friendlier on the bus and in the streets.

The source of this buoyancy was clear to all. «Habemus papam!» were typical words of greeting throughout the city (even among non-Catholics), often accompanied by a joyful embrace.

After the sadness of John Paul II’s death, the shock of 3 million people descending on Rome and the apprehension about the conclave, the city was ready for a rest.

It didn’t come easy. Confusion about the color of the smoke, and quarter-hour bells seeming to confirm the unconfirmable, brought rushes of excitement followed by disappointment. And so Rome had been sitting on the edge of its seat.

Several colleagues, atheists at that, crossed town to be in the square for each of the «fumate.» On Tuesday morning, one asked me to call if there was white smoke so he could cancel class and come to the square. The workings of the Holy Spirit were becoming an irresistible magnet.

Then on the afternoon of April 19 the crowds were gathering in the piazza. The evening before we had had to wait until almost 8 p.m. so people were taking their time arriving in the square.

Yet a little before 6 p.m. smoke began to emerge from the chimney. It appeared white, or at least lighter than usual, yet there were no bells as promised to announce a new pope.

Most of the crowd began to cheer then roar, while many kept looking, puzzled at the bells. Was there a pope? The smoke continued — surely white? — until the din of the people was finally drowned out by the clanging of the bells. We had a pope!

The entire city leaped into action. Suddenly people poured into the streets. Stores were closed and all the roads were filled with people sprinting, in skirts, suits or cassocks, toward St. Peter’s Square.

Some Romans, frustrated by the traffic in the tiny streets off the square, simply abandoned their cars in the road and hurried toward the piazza. The people on foot, undeterred by the parked vehicles blocking their path, just clambered over the hoods and trunks to get to St. Peter’s on time. It was well worth the effort.

As Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stepped out on the balcony of St. Peter’s and stood under the statue of Jesus which crowns the facade, they saw that the Church had a new Vicar of Christ, Rome had a new bishop and Catholics everywhere had a new father.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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