That first evening when we met the man called Francis
Settling in for a long wait for a new pope was interrupted – by the election of Francis
Newly elected Pope Francis I waves to the waiting crowd from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on March 13th, 2013. Photograph: Getty
I was on the phone when it happened. There in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall temporary media centre, me and thousands of the 5,600 media accredited by the Holy See. It was just day two of the voting and we were already settling into the longueurs that stretch through never-ending hours between billowing blasts of black smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney announcing no news.
Covering a big news story is like that, long spells of boredom punctuated by short, sharp shocks of activity.
A friend was working with the new pan-African TVC 24- hour television news service, based in Lagos, and had asked whether I would do daily live reports, gratis and for Africa, by phone and over pictures from St Peter’s Square.
That Wednesday afternoon was very quiet as we wandered to and fro from St Peter’s Square or sat in the Paul VI Hall watching huge TV screens. The only excitement was when a gull rested on the Sistine Chapel chimney and we speculated on its fate should it get caught in the next blast of expected black smoke.
Shortly after 7pm I got a call from Africa. As I started my report, smoke began to emerge from the Sistine chimney. It was a dull grey black, as expected, and I relayed this. Then it turned a milky white. I did not believe what I was seeing and said something like “hang on, hang on . . .”
Media colleagues began to cheer and I continued: “It is white, the smoke is white. We have a pope, we have a pope . . . ”
And so I informed Africa of the election of the man who would be Francis.
I headed to St Peter’s Square and met colleague Paddy Agnew. It was not at all crowded as bells rang and a damp drizzle fell, but it soon was packed to sardine capacity as Romans taxied from all over the city full of excitement and hoopla. Included was Paddy’s wife Dympna.
Everyone speculated on who the new pope might be. Many thought that after such a short conclave it had to be an Italian member of the curia and a collective moan seemed in the offing.
Then he emerged, the man Paddy Power had at 50 to 1 and no one had given a second thought because he was 76 and was said to have withdrawn his name at the 2005 conclave. That was my excuse. Go on Paddy, admit you didn’t pick him either.
And so Jorge Mario Bergoglio was introduced to the thousands in St Peter’s Square, followed by a collective “who he?” silence. Then it was announced his name would be Francis, and the Italians just love St Francis.
He spoke a casual “ Buona sera ” (good evening) to the crowds and said his electors had gone to the end of the earth to find him – but he had them at “ buona sera ”.
Paddy rushed off to write his report while I was chosen to do colour – a Tricolour preferably, but there wasn’t an Irish person in sight. Then I saw a solitary Argentinian flag being waved frantically way up in St Peter’s Square. And so, with the renowned gentility of my profession, I elbowed my way through the squashed masses to the luckiest Argentinian family in the whole world. Seven of them.
Mother Dolores knew the new pope personally. My God, could it get any better? It did.
Her son Francisco (20), a student in Buenos Aires who carried the flag, knew the new pope too and let it be known that they now shared the same name. I asked him whether that and the election of a pope from his home city was as good as Argentina winning the World Cup. He was speechless.
Whether this was because he had no experience of Argentina winning the World Cup (the last time was in 1986, before he was born) or a response to the idiocy of the question did not become clear. There was no time.
As all around the crowds chanted “Viva Il Papa” and the bells rang, I had to rush off in abject obedience to that merciless task master, the deadline.