Urbi et Orbi address
BY DAMIAN THOMPSON IN ROME
THE HOLY Spirit sprang a surprise on his Church on Tuesday afternoon when Joseph Ratzinger – the most controversial, admired and (by some) loathed cardinal in the world – stepped out on to the balcony of St Peter’s as Pope Benedict XVI.
Since the first sputterings of white smoke 40 minutes earlier, the crowd in the square had been working itself up into a pitch of pious excitement, particularly when the bells of St Peter’s started swinging joyfully.
By a stroke of luck I had strolled into the square to meet a schoolfriend two hours before the smoke was expected. Suddenly an American voice behind me said: “It’s white! We have a pope!” A hesitant cheer went up. Then, of course, the fumes turned black. (Honestly, it’s not rocket science: why do they always confuse us?) Then it was white again, first in a drift as thin as pipe smoke, followed by great billows.
Abandoning my rendezvous, I climbed clumsily over a wooden barrier and pushed myself to the front of the crowd.
The balcony was still far enough away to be tiny, but the Vatican had set up a video screen right underneath the giant statue of St Peter holding his keys. The effect was of the apostle gazing down at the screen, as if he, too, was curious to find out who would succeed him. Behind me, a little huddle of teenage Franciscan novices, dressed in rough brown habits, tried to ring their mothers on their state-ofthe-art mobiles.
We knew the moment was coming when the cameras swung away from the evaporating smoke to the velvet curtains covering the entrance to the balcony. After a few preparatory rustles, they opened, and out stepped the Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez. “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum,” he said. “Habemus papam!” A roar went up from the crowd, but a quick one, so they could catch what came next.
Then the agonisingly slow introduction. “Reventissimum ... dominum... Josef,” and at that instant a whisper crept around the piazza: “Ratzinger! Ratzinger!” And so it was. The reign of Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pope for a millennium, had begun. Now the young Franciscans set up a football chant of “Bene-dett-o! Be-ne-dett-o!” Next to me stood Benjamin Cieply, an impeccably-dressed seminarian from the Legionnaries of Christ, the most dynamic and conservative of new priestly movements. “I’m overjoyed. This is the work of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Not everyone looked so pleased. Some European tourists – it was surprising how few actual Romans there were in the front row – tried to conceal their glum looks.
A group of Mexican seminarians flashed their perfect teeth in all directions, but perhaps the smiles would have been a bit broader if the Spirit had alighted on a Latin American.
Pope Benedict emerged, clad in red cape, papal white cassock and magnificent embroidered stole, looking just about as unlike a Rottweiler as it is possible to be. His first words were perfectly chosen, acknowledging that only a matter of days earlier the chair of Peter had been occupied by the greatest Pope of the 20th century.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” he said. “The fact that the Lord can work and act even with insufficient means consoles me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.” Quite how much of this was understood by the astonishingly multi-ethnic crowd is not clear, but the excitement of the occasion seemed to have communicated itself even to those liberal Catholics who had been saying that morning that if Ratzinger won they might defect to the Episcopalians. On the balcony next to the Pope the College of Cardinals beamed out, though one or two of the Americans must have been wondering how they were going to explain this back home.
Bizarrely, the most exuberant conservative joy came from someone who was not even a Catholic. Donna Thompson, a Congregationalist from Massachusetts, told me: “I think it’s a great sign that the cardinals have chosen the right-hand man of your last great Pope. “From what I hear, he’s conservative on morality, and that’s just what we need. I don’t just mean things like the gay issue, but the culture of greed that is swamping us.” That said, amidst all the chatter and analysis – what does this mean for liturgy? for women? for the curia? – it was good to be reminded that not all Catholics are obsessed (or even mildly interested) in theological nuance. I asked a young English woman what she made of the new Pope. “He seems nice,” she said. “Where did you say he came from?” Two hours later, I finally caught up with my schoolfriend in a pavement cafe. He is a priest these days, and a jolly conservative one. I asked him what he made of the news. “It proves,” he said, taking a deep draught of Champagne, “that there is a God after all.”