A puff of smoke - slowly all was clear

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It had got to the point where there was no longer anything to be said. The crowd in the piazza had been waiting 24 hours, on and off, for the white smoke to come out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney. The most reliable sources reckoned they had another 24 hours to wait for the new pope to be announced. The time was 4.50pm. Even for the far duller prospect of another cloud of black smoke they had at least another hour and 15 minutes to kill. Sitting in St Peter's Square yesterday afternoon was beginning to make county cricket look interesting.

It had got to the point where there was no longer anything to be said. The crowd in the piazza had been waiting 24 hours, on and off, for the white smoke to come out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney. The most reliable sources reckoned they had another 24 hours to wait for the new pope to be announced. The time was 4.50pm. Even for the far duller prospect of another cloud of black smoke they had at least another hour and 15 minutes to kill. Sitting in St Peter's Square yesterday afternoon was beginning to make county cricket look interesting.

There were perhaps 5,000 people in the square and they were killing time in every polite way known to man. Tourists were studying their Rome maps.

Fresh-faced seminarians in black were strumming guitars and singing hymns, as were a large group of German nuns in blue habits. A small girl was skipping. Folks were eating sandwiches. More seminarians were standing round raking over the careers of the top pope contenders. Many journalists were interviewing many non-journalists. Some journalists were even interviewing other journalists. Germans, Poles, Brazilians, French and Americans were desultorily waving their national flags. The girl with the skipping rope was being filmed by three or four international television crews.

I was making my way to the back of the piazza and thinking about going home when incredulous voices began to shout, "Fumo! Fumo!" ("Smoke! Smoke") The chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel is a small metal tube and any smoke that emits from it is only visible faintly from the square, but the Vatican authorities had thoughtfully set up large video screens around the square relaying images of the chimney, so that when smoke starts to come out of it, everyone sees it at once. Immediately the piazza was transformed into a seething mass of excitement and confusion.

Was the smoke white or was it black? This was the first problem. The first puffs of smoke on Monday had elicited excited cries of "It's white!" until its blackness became indisputable. Once bitten, twice shy: this time people were more ready to believe this vague, grey-ish swirling was black. But it kept coming, for a full 20 minutes the smoke kept pouring out of the chimney.

These people were trying to tell us something. And whenever the smoke thickened up it looked indisputably white. People began to cheer and clap and throw themselves in the air. Some cried. The flags were flogged from side to side. Drums began to resound, someone pulled out a hunting horn and honked it.

"I really feel moved," said the Roman man standing next to me, close to tears. "The cardinals really got on with the job ­ they're showing up the Italian politicians, all talk and no action. They really know the right way to behave."

At 6.05pm, 15 minutes after the smoke began to billow out, came the confirmatory signal: the bells on the south side of the basilica's façade began to peal. But still the tension did not dissipate ­ one wait was over but another had just begun. They'd found a pope. But who was he?

"I hope it's Mario Martini," said the woman at my side, also a Roman. Martini was the former Archbishop of Milan, highly regarded as a liberal-minded prelate with great brains and a sweet nature. For many years in the Nineties he was regarded as front runner to be next pope, but then he retired to Jerusalem, began to walk with a stick and was dismissed as past it. But with the dramatic ascendancy of Ratzinger, also nearing 80, in the past week, Martini was again touted as the reformists' best hope of thwarting him. "He would make a wonderful pope," she went on. "Ratzinger. Hmm. He's rather cold, isn't he ..."

The crowd in the piazza ballooned in size: people came pouring in from all directions, and the Via della Conciliazione, the short, broad boulevard that leads to the Tiber, was a sea of people, flooding towards the square.

In no time ­ in the time it takes a new pope to pray and to change his clothes and clear his throat ­ it was full. And still the wait went on. At last, after another half hour, the cardinal deacon stepped on to the balcony on the basilica's façade and in sonorous tones read the new pope's name.

Cardinal Ratzinger emerged, raised his hands in the air, and was met by a roar of approval. The whole event went off perfectly. And if there were some, like the lady at my side, whose cheering was a little lukewarm, and who did not smile at the news as broadly as one might wish ­ well, Cardinal Ratzinger has never been known as a person to elicit enormous warmth. That's something he will need to work at. In the end, the choice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was hardly a surprise, given that he had been the favourite to win since last week. But it was a stunning outcome all the same. For one thing, favourites very rarely win the papal election.

A Roman proverb says: "He who goes into the conclave a pope, comes out a cardinal." But Cardinal Ratzinger swept all before him. This had been his show from the moment John Paul II died. It was he who preached an emotional, evocative, carefully judged sermon at the funeral 10 days ago. He marshalled the cardinals from the four corners of the world to Rome, he addressed their formal "congregations" every morning of last week. He personally imposed an unprecedented ban on contact between cardinals and the media, a ban much resented on both sides.

Finally, at the grand mass on Monday, "Pro Eligendo Papa", [for the election of the pope], he preached a fiery and uncompromising sermon that was widely seen as the final rallying cry in his papal campaign.

In Italian "that sounded as if it had been translated from Latin", as one Italian journalist put it, Ratzinger delivered a withering denunciation of modern scepticism, secularism and relativism.

"In recent decades, the little boat of the thought of many Christians has been ... thrown from one extreme to another," he declared, "from Marxism to liberalism ... from atheism to a vague religious mysticism ... New sects are born every day. To have a clear faith is often to be labelled a fundamentalist."

The Catholic Church has found itself a tough new master. "Electing Ratzinger after John Paul," suggested an American in the piazza, "is like electing Rumsfeld after George Bush."

How the conclave decided

MONDAY

3.38pm BST: 115 cardinals lock themselves into the Sistine Chapel, adjacent to St Peter's Basilica, to elect a new pope and take an oath of secrecy.

7.05pm: Black smoke billows from the chapel's chimney, signalling that the first attempt to elect a pope has failed.

YESTERDAY

10.51am: Black smoke indicates that the cardinals have again failed to reach agreement in two votes.

4.51pm: Black smoke rises from the conclave.

4.56pm: White smoke seems to rise from the chapel but no bells are heard confirming a pope's election. Confusion sets in as Vatican Radio says that it is uncertain whether the plume was black or white.

5.05pm: Bells ring out from St Peter's Basilica to confirm the election of a pope.

5.40pm: The German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is named as the new Pope, and will be taking the name Benedict XVI.

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