In St. Peter's Square, History Unraveled Slowly

The eyes of the world were fixed on St. Peter's Square this week as Roman Catholic cardinals elected a new pope. Host Scott Simon reflects on the rituals and the silence that followed Pope Francis's call for prayers.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In times in which news and the kinds of stuff that's not news at all reaches us instantaneously in tweets, text messages, leaks and braying declarations, the Roman Catholic Church drew the eyes of the world to St. Peter's Square this week by revealing a moment for history slowly.

The crowd had gathered in the square for two days. They didn't need to be diverted by chants, rock bands, or colossal video screens. They talked to each other. A few people sang softly. And quite a few people prayed.

At one point, a gray and white seagull perched on the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Then that chimney began to cough up a few faint wisps of gray. Then white clouds began to boil. The crowd roared. Ancient bells pealed. Night fell on Rome and bright lights beamed in St. Peter's Square.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIMON: About an hour passed before the new pope was presented to the world. He had to put on his vestments, of course. But he also took time - as many in the crowd did - to pray. And then Pope Francis stepped onto the world stage, his name enfolded inside Latin intonations. And when he bowed forward to the throngs and asked for their prayers, there was an astonishing deep and sustained breath of silence.

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: There are somber challenges ahead in the Roman Catholic Church: sexual abuse scandals, church finances, dwindling vocations, and debates over priestly vows and the role of religious women. But this week's show in St. Peter's may have reminded us of the sheer dramatic power of silence and simplicity to reach into souls.

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SIMON: You're listening to NPR News.

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