November 19, 2003: Perspective
Illustration: Emiliano Ponzi

The “smokes,” 25 years later
A day when making mistakes demonstrated true grace

By James H. S. McGregor ’68 *75

James McGregor is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia.

Last month’s media coverage of Pope John Paul II’s 25th anniversary took me back to the night of his election. I was in the crowd in St. Peter’s Square when he made his first appearance as pope. I had been in Rome for a month or so by then. I had seen the first John Paul – who served as pope for only 28 days – on two occasions. On the first, he stood beside the mayor of Rome at the base of the Capitoline Steps during the ceremonial possessio, when the pope takes possession of the Church of St. John Lateran. The second time was after Mass on a September Sunday, when he read a homily from his apartment window. He gave a very simple sermon, the kind you might hear from a small-town minister or rabbi. The sermon seemed very slight in the great square, not intimate but too small for the space. He died unexpectedly the next weekend.

Once the conclave for the election of the new pope began, I went to St. Peter’s twice a day for what Italians call le fumate, or, in English, “the smokes.” Piety was not my motive. I am a medievalist by profession, and like most in the field I am a connoisseur of Catholic ritual, which forms a universal backdrop to medieval literature and culture. Unlike many medievalists, however, I am not a believer. I was doing research in the Vatican library, which is within the papal city itself, though remote from the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals are immured while the conclave lasts. On my way to lunch, I would pause in the square – one of the thousands of curious who gathered there. Shortly after noon a small stream of smoke would begin to appear from the spindly tin chimney of what I supposed was a wood stove somewhere inside the chapel. The smoke always began as a white wisp – white smoke signals that a pope has been elected – but as the fire grew an unmistakable cloud of black would envelope and overtake it. Everyone would wander off knowing that nothing had been decided. A crowd equally big would return at five for the burning of the day’s second ballot.

After several days of white smoke overwhelmed by black, an evening smoke which began like all the others built to a shining white cloud. We went home for dinner, knowing that nothing else would happen before nightfall. By 7 p.m. the crowd in St. Peter’s Square was very large, though in the semidarkness it was impossible to guess its size. Many people were listening to Vatican radio, which already had announced the results of the vote. “Cardinal Wojtyla, Cardinal Wojtyla,” people were murmuring, wondering who, exactly, that might be. It was clear to everyone in the crowd, of course, that Wojtyla was not an Italian name.

Around eight o’clock the great glass-paned doors that lead to the balcony above the porch of St. Peter’s swung open. A crowd of cardinals drifted outside and spread themselves along the balustrade overlooking the cascading steps of St. Peter’s and the crowd. A few of them waved self-consciously. One of the cardinals stepped to a microphone and pronounced very slowly – in deference to the echoes that rolled his words like boulders around the square, “Annuntio . . . vobis . . . gaudium . . . magnum . . . ” No medieval formula for presenting a new pope to the Roman people, these are the words of the Vulgate Bible spoken by the angels who announce Jesus’ birth to the “shepherds abiding in the fields.” The King James Bible says, “For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . ” The slow voice of the cardinal continued, “Habemus . . . papam” — “We have a pope.” The crowd roared at the completion of this familiar formula; the cardinal paused to let the sound die away, then went on, “qui sibi nomen imposuit (who has given himself the name) Joannem Paulum II.”

The new pope’s name, like that of his predecessor, honored the much beloved though controversial and sometimes radical John XXIII, and the brilliant theologian and tactician Paul VI. But who was the person who had taken upon himself this resonant name? No one in the crowd knew much about him except that for the first time since the Renaissance, this pope was not Italian.

The cardinals elect the pope, but the people of Rome have always played a part in the process. With no formal power, their responsibility and right of acclaiming the new pope on their own behalf and on behalf of the secular world has always been assumed. In the Middle Ages, when a pope’s power rested in no small part on his popularity with the Romans, this acclamation had real force. Now, like the possessio and the Sunday homily, it is simply part of the papal routine. But on this night, for the first time in centuries, there was something at stake. Would the Roman crowd acclaim a foreign pope? In a symbolic sense – which is crucial in a symbolic office – much was riding on what the new pope would do in the next few minutes.

His Holiness – Karol Wojtyla – was introduced. He began to speak. The crowd was attentive from the first word, because he was speaking Italian. He started in a familiar way by playing down his abilities and playing up the difficulties of what he started to call, “your Italian language,” but then he stopped himself midway through the phrase and changed it to “our Italian language.” The crowd roared with delight. He went on to say, “and if I make mistakes, you will correct me.” At that moment the Roman crowd, and the rest of us who were neither Roman nor Catholic, acclaimed him as earnestly and enthusiastically as we could. Here was a person who was ready to do his best, who was bold enough on the most turbulent night of his life to express himself in what was probably his fifth language, and who wasn’t afraid to admit he would make mistakes, and humble enough to invite the crowd to correct them. In the midst of pure ceremony – the “personified impersonal,” in Melville’s phrase – here was an immediate, intimate revelation of a person with power, warmth, and grace. The next morning a Milan newspaper reprinted his speech with the grammatical mistakes highlighted by italics, but the paper clearly missed the point. Form at its best should always be the framework of action, the stage on which we play ourselves.


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