There was some good advice on Twitter today from the London Fire Brigade: “If you see black smoke billowing from anywhere other than the #Vatican today,” it tweeted, “give us a bell, it’s probably not a good sign #Pope.” But while we were waiting for the good sign from the Sistine Chapel chimney which finally billowed out at 6:00pm, we had to ask: is there not a more amusing way of choosing a new Supreme Pontiff than this?
Waiting for the white smoke is the dullest spectator sport in the world, even duller than crown-green bowls, more tiresome than regatta racing. How we pitied poor Ed Stourton, stuck in the Vatican for Radio 4, having to report in successive news bulletins that nope, it’s still black (or, hang on, is that a tantalising shade of ashy grey? What does that mean?). How distracted we are from thoughts of religion and metaphysics by irrelevant questions: couldn’t the College of Cardinals, with all its fancy robes, afford a better chimney? The one it has looked like the chimney above a works canteen in Dagenham. And what did they burn that gave off those clouds white smoke? Marshmallows? Doves’ wings? Communion hosts?
It’s all over now, but next time, something really must be done to pull the papal conclave into the modern world. Think X Factor or The Voice. No, wait – Pope Idol. Can’t the front-running cardinals have a nail-biting pray-off in front of a shrieking arena audience, with Klieg lights frantically stabbing the Michelangelo frescos? Can’t we give the favourites a stern quizzing about how they’d behave as Pope in the event that a) the Queen suddenly outlawed all Catholics on pain of death by beheading; b) the outgoing Benedict XVI set up a rival, Mafia-backed papacy in Palermo; or c) Richard Dawkins came for talks?
Couldn’t the next election be conducted along the lines of The Krypton Factor? Throw in some quizzes and zip wires to liven things up. Even better, what about taking inspiration from The Hunger Games? We would love to see all the cardinals, on a whistle, running full-tilt in their mitres and canonicals to grab knives and bows and arrows, before stalking each other through a forest. Now that would be an election battle worthy of a major religion. It would be infallibly entertaining.