The Vatican hill on the west side of Rome has hosted ecclesial drama since the earliest days of the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Peter was believed to have been crucified here under the
Emperor Nero, in the middle of a racing circus — a spot that today lies just below the Vatican's duty-free mini-mall. Nero, according to church histori-ans, used to throw nighttime parties in what are now the Vatican Gardens, illuminating the festivities by tying Christians to high poles and setting them on fire. The persecutions eventually ended, and Saint Peter's tomb in the cemetery on the Vatican hill eventually became such a popular pilgrim-age site that the Emperor Constantine decided to build a sumptuous basil-ica there in AD 326. Local tradition says he was so enthused about the project that he took off his royal finery and began digging the foundations with his own hands.
Renaissance popes rebuilt the basilica half a millennium ago on an even more massive scale. It is architecture designed for theater, and the drama is never more intense than when a pope dies and a new one is elected. The dead pope is carried in procession and placed on a bier beneath the basilica dome, where he lies in state before his funeral. If he was much loved, like John Paul II, pilgrims come from around the world to pay their respects. But popes have not always been so popular. In 1559, when Paul IV died, Romans rioted in celebration and broke open the prisons of the Inquisition; in the late 1800s Pope Pius IX's hearse was attacked by an anticlerical mob and his corpse narrowly escaped being thrown into the Tiber River. Only in the last century did popes become widely respected defenders of human rights, peace and social justice. Their funerals nowadays bring kings and queens, premiers and presidents to a kneeling position before the papacy. The pope is buried, usually in the basilica crypt. Some days later, a curtain is pulled aside and a new pope appears on the balcony of the church's central facade, cheered by a passionate crowd of the faithful in Saint Peter's Square. The transition is complete: Sadness has turned to excitement, and the death knell of the basilica bells is replaced by peals of joy.
In April 2005 an estimated two billion people followed those events on television or the Internet following the death of John Paul II. For the first time in history, papal transition became a global experience as Saint Peter's Basilica served as the backdrop for endless TV stand-ups, pilgrim inter-views and liturgical play-by-play commentary. As the 115 voting cardinals prepared to enter into conclave, journalists began reporting signs of what appeared, in retrospect, an almost inevitable outcome: the election of Ger-man Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. Framed in tradi-tion and colored by ceremony, the announcement of habemus papam must have seemed like one of the most choreographed moments of church pag-eantry to those watching around the world.
Yet what the world saw was one thing; what was actually going on inside the ornate hallways and chambers of the Vatican was quite another.
The papal election was the most fascinating news event I'd covered in many years. But for months afterward I was bothered by a nagging mystery. One day, long after the conclave paraphernalia had been put back in storage and the words "Pope Benedict" no longer sounded strange, I walked over to Saint Peter's Basilica and went looking for a man named Giuseppe. I heard he had a story to tell.
It was day two of the conclave, April 19, 2005, and a faint odor of incense still hung in the air from the morning Mass, wafting from the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament across the nave of the great basilica, where it blended with a new and stronger smell, one that rose from an immense crowd of tired and sweaty pilgrims.
Enrico, an usher in Saint Peter's, stood sentrylike in a crisp blue suit and lifted his eyes toward the logjam of visitors. "Ciao, Giuseppe," he said. "Another long day, huh? It's never going to end."
Giuseppe Fiorucci shrugged and kept moving across the patterned floor of the basilica. Enrico was a talker, and Fiorucci didn't have time for a con-versation. A short man with a steady gait, he steered a course around the mass of humanity and was glad, today as all days but especially today, that he was not an usher — glad that it was someone else's job to deal with the questions in ten languages and the crying babies and "Where's the bath-room?" and "No flash, please" and "Can we leave flowers?" and "How long before we get to the pope's tomb?" Today he was glad he was only a sam pietrino, a basilica workman, and that his blue denim outfit exempted him from dealing with all the needs of so many pious and insistent people.
He reached the other side of the church, adjusted the glasses on his broad face and gazed back. The light was stretching across the main aisle now, illuminating the red and white patches of the Polish flags draped across backpacks and shoulders. So many Poles. First to see the body, now to see the tomb. Three million in ten days, the news reported. According to Enrico, never had so many people passed through Saint Peter's. Enrico was just an usher, of course, but he sometimes had coffee with Bishop Lanzani, and Bishop Lanzani knew everything about the basilica. Or so they said.
"Attention, please!" Paolo, who was doing guard duty to the left of the main altar, came up from behind and wrapped his big hands around Fiorucci's neck. He continued his joke in flawed English: "We remind you to please to remain quiet."
Paolo nodded toward a small rear door of the basilica and made a sign that he needed a smoke. Fiorucci shook his head, but Paolo dragged him by the sleeve. The doorway, however, was blocked by a rope barrier attached to brass hooks, and two Vatican gendarmes stood sentry. His cigarette break would have to wait.
"I forgot. The cardinals," Paolo muttered under his breath.
The back door of Saint Peter's led to a parking lot in front of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the $20 million guesthouse that lodged the cardinals who would elect the new pope. The Domus was on the south side of the basilica; the Sistine Chapel, where the voting sessions were held, was on the north. Most cardinals came out to board a bus that took them through the Vatican Gardens to the Sistine, but you could always count on the odd-ball who would insist on going by foot. Yesterday it was German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who took a route through the Vatican Gardens. This morn-ing a Latin American cardinal was walking the travertine path around the back of Saint Peter's. The Vatican security guards and the basilica staff had to make sure the door was sealed and that no one — not one pilgrim with a flag, not one child with a loud voice, not even a bishop — could in any way communicate with the cardinals as they passed. Not that anyone was trying.
The pilgrims inside the basilica, in fact, had little immediate interest in the Sistine Chapel proceedings. They were all headed downstairs to the crypt where John Paul II lay buried. But when they reached his tomb, after waiting hours in line, they had an unpleasant surprise: They couldn't stop to pray. They were essentially on a conveyor belt, told to keep moving along. They couldn't even take photos. This seemed strange: When the pope had been lying in state, the basilica ushers did nothing to prevent people from taking snapshots or cell phone photos of the dead pontiff; now they would yell at anyone who pulled out a camera. The reason was logistical. Up in the basilica, the main aisle was wide enough to contain a river of pilgrims that flowed at a good speed past the papal bier. Down in the crypt, it was shoul-der to shoulder, with barely space for a single-file line. When the line stopped, the ambience turned claustrophobic and people started to panic. So the rule was no photos, no praying, no singing, no placing objects near the tomb. The lucky ones got to toss written messages in a big straw basket.
The brusqueness of the ushers contrasted with the sentiments of the visitors, many of whom were crying. To those who worked at the Vatican, it seemed the pope's death had unleashed so much raw emotion — too much, perhaps. The media had turned it into a personal story about the humanity of John Paul II and the way he had touched people around the globe. Yet many of those who worked here didn't feel the pathos. One basilica official named Alfredo recalled a conversation with a security guard who had served Pope John Paul through his entire pontificate and had traveled with him to more than 130 countries. As the security guard did duty at the foot of the pope's corpse, Alfredo had approached to pay his respects.
The guard looked up and asked with absolute nonchalance: "Alfredo, how you doing?"
He was taken aback by the familiar tone, two feet from the dead pope. "Well, I'm a little sad."
"Why?" the guard said abruptly.
"Because this man worked very hard for twenty-six years and suffered a lot at the end," he said.
"But, Alfredo, the pope is dead!" the guard rejoined.
In other words, why waste your sentiments? In fact, many Vatican em-ployees — even the ones who knew and respected John Paul — seemed some-what detached about his passing.
Fiorucci walked back toward the front of the church, turning inside a small vestibule off the side aisle, which housed the elevator to the roof. He placed his hand along a wall panel and gave a little shove. The panel opened, revealing a hidden inner wall hung with all manner of keys. He picked one set from a hook, and then another, and closed the panel quietly.
Riccardo was sitting on his chair next to the lift. "Going up again?" he asked.
Fiorucci nodded. The two men stepped inside the Otis elevator, Ric cardo turned a key and it whirred up slowly through a shaft carved out of brick masonry. Riccardo was happy to have some company. He spent most days hauling load after load of tourists back down from the cupola, but the roof had been closed until the conclave was over.
"Drop me off at the lumaca," Fiorucci said.
The elevator glided to a stop and Fiorucci walked out into a narrow hallway.
"White smoke today — you'll see," Riccardo said. Then the doors closed and he disappeared. After a few seconds, silence. The heavy silence you find inside walls that are twenty feet thick.
Fiorucci trudged along a dusty, narrow corridor. White smoke? That would be nice. But not likely this morning. It was too early. He walked past dim rooms hidden in the basilica's inner walls, alongside bare brick, kicking up pigeon feathers. The birds came in through air shafts or other holes in the basilica. They were a problem, but you couldn't seal a building like this — it had to breathe. The masonry expanded and contracted like a lung, sometimes as much as five inches in a single day. "Thermal shifting," Bishop Lanzani had called it. Saint Peter's facade, a marble mosaic as big as a soc-cer field, absorbed the movement the way a body absorbs a good stretch. On the inside of the building, you could see the cracks that ran like varicose veins wherever the plaster was old.
Like others who worked for the Fabbrica of Saint Peter's, Fiorucci knew this roof-level route as well as he knew the layout of his own home. He could have walked it in the dark, and sometimes — when a circuit shorted out, for instance — he had done just that. "Fabbrica" generally means "build-ing" but here it was understood as "workshop." The 150 sampietrini in its employ did everything from dusting cornices to replacing roof tiles. A lot of them performed double duty, donning overalls and wielding vacuum clean-ers and floor buffers for the first half of their shift, then putting on suits to help with crowd control and lower-level security. All were artisans in the traditional sense, and a number of them were practiced in the ancient skill of "cupola climbing," suspended by ropes whenever outside repairs on the dome were needed. The outside world might look on them as the mainte-nance men of an architectural landmark, but they saw it differently. They knew that Saint Peter's was more than a relic; it was a living thing, an ever renewing act of construction whose beauty and glory ultimately depended on them, the workers who patched up the plaster, strung electrical wire, repaired water damage and kept the bronze from overtarnishing. As senior electrician, Fiorucci was in charge of the bells, but he spent most days on never-ending fix-up projects. It was like keeping an aging relative in good health.
The Fabbrica was one of the oldest institutions at the Vatican, and it maintained a proud independence from the Vatican's main bureaucracy, the Roman Curia — too much independence, in the eyes of some Vatican prelates. Those who oversaw Vatican finances had long wanted to lift the dome off Saint Peter's and have a good, hard look at what lay underneath. The basilica's organization was divided into two areas: Administration was the responsibility of the Fabbrica, while pastoral services were provided by the Chapter of Saint Peter's. The Chapter had forty or so canons, priests who took care of "spiritual" services in the basilica, hearing confessions, scheduling Masses and participating in papal liturgies. The Chapter had built up considerable financial holdings, and there had been rumors for years about shady dealings. Its reputation wasn't helped when, in 2001, one of the Chapter's former officers was accused of trying to sell artworks falsely attributed to Michelangelo to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Fabbrica, meanwhile, was facing its own problems. It, too, was independently financed, relying on the largesse of donors through the cen-turies to build a substantial patrimony. Recently, however, the Fabbrica had
lost money, big money — millions of dollars, according to some sources — by making massive stock investments just before the dollar crashed against the euro in 2003. Pope John Paul had for years listened to complaints about the lack of financial oversight, but even as he centralized budget and manage-ment over many Vatican agencies, he never touched the basilica's autonomy. At the Vatican, political ties were always stronger than economic argu-ments, and the basilica knew how to defend itself. Alliances were forged, influence was wielded and the Fabbrica and the Chapter survived. As one monsignor put it, it was not just a question of protecting one's turf, but of defending hundreds of years of tradition.
These financial affairs were above Fiorucci's pay grade; as long as he drew his monthly paycheck and was served a hot meal in the Fabbrica's caf-eteria, he was a happy man. But like all the sampietrini, he had witnessed recent standoffs between the basilica's administrators and other Vatican agencies. It was worst when John Paul was lying in state. Suddenly, every-one wanted to be in charge at Saint Peter's: There was a constant parade of raccomandati, the privileged ones, who came through the back door and were led to the head of the line by officials of the Secretariat of State or Ro-man Curia congregations or the Governatorato, which administered Vati-can City State. Basilica officials had the right to determine access, and on more than one occasion they had turned away these unexpected backdoor delegations. It was all slightly embarrassing, especially to the VIPs. An-cient resentments bubbled to the surface at times like this, and there was friction between the Fabbrica staff and the Swiss Guards on duty inside the church. In the eyes of the basilica authorities, the Swiss Guards had come to believe they had absolute jurisdiction over every square inch of Vatican City. They, too, sometimes needed to be put in their place.
Fiorucci stopped before a doorway. On the stone lintel was carved Lu maca della Campana. He took the big key out of his overalls pocket and turned it twice in the bronze lock. He stooped and ducked inside, closing the door behind him, then turned to climb the narrow winding stairs to the bell tower. The stairway, shaped like a lumaca, or snail, was steep, and he took his time. From above a single bell chimed and reverberated down the spiral chamber: nine fifteen a.m. The cardinals would just be finishing morning prayers, and then the voting would begin. He reached a platform and exited the lumaca, now moving across a wider wooden stairway. It was like an obstacle course, ending in the tall open room that housed the bells. From below it appeared as if there were just one or two bells, but in fact there were six in all, each with an ancient purpose remembered, sadly, by very few people today. The rota, with its well-worn clapper, was the oldest bell, dating to the middle of the fourteenth century. Originally it was used to call to assembly the judges of the Roman Rota, the Vatican's main tribu-nal. Back then, the judges would have no trouble recognizing the tone and cadence of the chime. That was the remarkable thing: Before telephones or electronics, and before the din of Roman traffic took over, the bells were the Vatican's way of communicating across the city. Another bell, the predica, sounded the hours of assembly for prayer. The bells rang out complex chimes for Sundays, feast days, the octave of feast days, ember days, days of fasting and papal anniversaries. It was Rome's ceremonial code language. But today, amid the cacophony of modern life, it was sometimes hard to hear the ringing outside of Saint Peter's Square.
Fiorucci walked to the edge of the tower where the bronze campanone stood in all its tarnished majesty. Winding around the bell's main section was a bas-relief depicting a procession of saints. Saints Peter and Paul, the patrons of Rome, were on the side facing the square. They were topped by inscriptions, cherubs and a frieze of strange symbols that included smiling faces, papal crests and the keys of Saint Peter. Above, naked boys holding dolphinlike sea snakes formed an elaborate decorative crown to the entire work. The bell had been hanging there since 1786; eight feet in diameter and almost twenty-five feet in circumference, it was the ninth-largest bell in the world. It had been commissioned by Pope Pius VI after the previous campanone, with only thirty-three years of service, cracked one day as it rang at full peal. Like many things at the Vatican, the new campanone had a checkered history. The pope had awarded the job of designing and casting the bell to Luigi Valadier, a well-known Roman silversmith who had exe-cuted numerous commissions for church decorations and altar figures around the world. As it turned out, though, Valadier was not really a bell maker. The tone of a bell depends on many things, including the dimen-sions, the quality of the bronze and the finishing work. It requires not only specialized knowledge but also experience. Rumors began circulating around Rome's artisan workshops that Valadier wasn't up to the task, that he was having problems, that the design was flawed, that the tone would be off, that cracks were likely. On September 1, 1785, Luigi Valadier walked from his workshop to the city's docks and threw himself into the Tiber River. Boat workers tried to save him, but Valadier had drowned by the time they pulled him out. His suicide shocked Rome, but he was given a fine funeral and buried in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, a few steps from the Pantheon. Ten months later, his bell was hung, and everyone pro-nounced it magnificent.
From the front chamber of the bell tower, it was impossible to see into Saint Peter's Square below, but Fiorucci knew it would be filling up with a lot of foreigners; the Romans were always the late arrivals, and would come rushing down only at the last minute, or when the words fumata bianca spread like lightning through the city. The foreigners cheered everything, even when a mere monsignor in red piping would walk through the square. "Look, it's one of the cardinals!" The night before some had cheered when the bells rang the eight o'clock hours. They thought a pope had been elected. Of course, that was silly — the slow tocco of the hours and the free swinging of the bells a distesa were completely different.
But how could they know that? They didn't speak the bells' language. Fiorucci heard a little click and instinctively plugged his ears, stepping away from the big bell. It was ten a.m., and a small hammer on the side of the campanone went into its mechanical routine, pounding out the hour. Al-though that used to be done by hand, now it was automated.
Fiorucci walked over to a small cabin in the corner and kicked away some of the pigeon feathers. He pulled out a plastic chair and sat down in front of a console where a series of black switches controlled the bells. The first one on the left, No. 1, turned on the campanone. Before turning it, of course, Fiorucci would have to be sure that a pope had really been elected. That didn't worry him particularly, but he didn't take the task lightly. "If I turn that switch and it turns out to be black smoke, it's my neck," he ac-knowledged. Fortunately, Fiorucci would not be required to read smoke signals — he couldn't even see the smoke from the bell tower, as the Sistine chimney was on the other side of the basilica. Instead, he would be duly informed, or so he was told. The details had never been fine-tuned. He was
supposed to be in the tower for the midday smoke; in the evening, since the basilica was closed, he would wait in front of an identical console in a small ground-floor room just off the sacristy. Up here, he had a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. But the electronic jamming for the conclave and the thick walls of the basilica made both unreliable. Fiorucci reached over and pulled a heavy brown telephone closer to his chair. It was an old model, a rotary dialer that had probably been up there for decades. He picked up the re-ceiver and heard a dial tone. That was the important thing.
It was starting to get warm. He took off his jacket, sat back down and closed his eyes for a moment. All he could hear were pigeons cooing and a distant hum from the piazza.
At eleven fifty-two a.m., the phone rang. "Black smoke. At least it looks black," one of his usher friends announced. But before he could leave his post, Fiorucci had to wait for the official all clear from Bishop Lanzani, which came a few minutes later. As he pulled on his jacket and started down the stairs, he heard the campanone start to ring out the deep tones of twelve o'clock. Down in the square, the innocents began cheering.
"I want it to be over. The pressure, it's too much," said Sophie de Ravinel, a young reporter for Le Figaro, as she stuck her head in our Catholic News Service booth and heaved a great sigh.
It was three p.m. on Tuesday, the second day of the conclave, and the atmosphere in the Vatican press office was charged with an unhealthy ner-vousness. The evening before and that morning, the Sistine Chapel smoke-stack had belched out two batches of black smoke. But despite the Vatican's pre-conclave assurances and the use of chemical color packs, the smoke had looked gray. Then white. Then black. Then gray again.
In the corner of our cubicle, a television showed a live feed of the Sistine chimney. The cardinals, unseen, were on their way back inside for the fourth ballot of the conclave.
Over the previous forty-eight hours, many of my journalistic colleagues, sleep deprived and overworked by the events of the last two weeks, had be-gun to fray at the edges now that the cardinals were locked in and we were locked out. The strange thing was, I was enjoying it. I was probably no more prepared than anyone for white smoke, but, as I told Sophie, I couldn't help
loving every minute. "For all we know, we could be here another hour or another week," I said. "We have no idea, and no idea how right or wrong we'll turn out to be. It's exciting. It's great."
I believed that, too. History was being made behind closed doors. It was undemocratic, it was nontransparent and it was wonderful. The uncer-tainty and apprehension in the crowded press room added to my delight. The crowning touch was the chimney. There was something marvelously surreal about an institution that announced the pope's death via an e‑mail to news agencies, and two weeks later announced the election of his succes-sor with a smoke signal.
But like Sophie's editors, my own desk people in Washington would be watching the smoke pour out of the chimney. That much they could see for themselves on TV. What they expected me to know was what it meant. Somehow, twenty-five years of covering the Vatican were supposed to give me greater insight into distinguishing the different shades of gray smoke.
In fact, I had been in Rome for the two conclaves in 1978 that elected the two John Pauls, and the smoke then had caused no end of problems. More than once the crowd in the square had been convinced it was white and, after waiting in vain for a new pope to appear, went home grumbling. When John Paul II was finally elected, the smoke looked dark — but when people started to leave, they were startled to hear the Vatican's loudspeak-ers crackle to life, telling them to stick around, it was white smoke. On that occasion my editor at the Rome Daily American wanted to run a page-one photo of the smoke pouring out of the Sistine. "It's gray," she complained when she saw the photo, and grabbed a bottle of Wite-Out to fix it.
This time, of course, things would be different. Or so we were assured. Two days earlier I had been among a small pool of reporters escorted into the Sistine Chapel to see the conclave layout. In the chapel's main section were arranged twelve long tables draped in beige and maroon felt, complete with name cards. The chairs were crammed close together — so close that I had a mental picture of cardinals having to shield their ballots as they scrib-bled their choice. The beautiful marble pavement had been covered with a carpeted false floor. Except for Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, which loomed menacingly at the end of the room, it looked a little like a business convention at a Holiday Inn.
But the real reason journalists had been brought to the Sistine Chapel was to admire the stove that sat at the far end of the room. On the right was the black cast-iron cylinder that had been used to burn the ballots in every conclave since 1939. But connected to it, on the left, was a new, smaller elec-trical unit with a control panel and a red "start" button. Its purpose, a Swiss Guard proudly explained to me, was to burn chemical canisters to enhance the color of the smoke and to preheat the copper smokestack to improve the draw. I went over to take a closer look and found Phil Pullella, the Reuters Vatican correspondent and a chronic snoop, already poking around a metal box next to the stove. He lifted the cover up, revealing rows of strange elec-trical gizmos. Immediately the guards pounced, shooing us away and clos-ing the box. Clearly, they weren't telling us everything.
Pullella sidled up to another guard to ask why the floor had been raised almost a meter. Was it to allow disabled cardinals to have easier access? The guard should have said nothing, but had a juicy bit of information that was too hard to hold back. "Where do you think we put the jamming devices?" he said proudly, apparently not realizing that he had just given us the lead to that day's story. In their mania for secrecy, the Vatican had hired special-ists to install electronic equipment capable of disturbing cell phone or radio signals and preventing wireless eavesdropping. No one would be text mes-saging from inside this conclave.
Walking out of the Sistine, back down the long Sala Regia stairway toward the Bronze Doors, I wondered whether the techno-stove would in-crease or decrease the margin for error. It all seemed slightly redundant anyway, since the Vatican had recently put a fail-safe backup signal into place: the bells. When a pope was elected, the bells of Saint Peter's would begin to toll. Not all the bells, actually, but the giant campanone, the "great bell," the ten-ton workhorse that rolled into action only at the most impor-tant ecclesial moments of the year. When Archbishop Piero Marini, the papal master of liturgical ceremonies, announced that the election of the new pope would be confirmed by the ringing of the campanone, a lot of con-clave veterans were disappointed. It seemed to kill the fun of watching the chimney. In fact, why bother with the smoke at all?
But once the voting had begun, journalists were happy to have the cam panone as the great arbiter. That's why it paid to be in Saint Peter's Square
instead of watching the smokestack on the video feed. As soon as smoke began chugging out of the chimney, the smart move was to keep an eye on the bell, which stood motionless at the top of the tower on the left side of the facade. It would begin to rock silently back and forth before the first deep notes resounded across the city. No bells, no pope. It was the media's safety net.
Outside the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, a Swiss Guard stood at at-tention and let his eyes wander across the marble inlay patterns of the floor of the Sala Regia. The grand hall was empty, and his presence there might have appeared pointless. But the guards and the conclave masters knew that, despite its reputation for being hermetically sealed, the Vatican was actually quite permeable — sometimes embarrassingly so. Although it seemed preposterous, you couldn't rule out the possibility that someone might try to crash the conclave, or simply wander through inadvertently. Not the regular pilgrims and tourists, who would be stopped at the Bronze Doors in Saint Peter's Square three floors below or at one of the three main gates to Vatican City. No, the risk came from people with connections to a Vatican employee or a resident monsignor, who would proudly escort them through the premises as if he owned the place. Over the years the guards had found individuals and groups meandering ingenuously through the hallways of the Secretariat of State, their eyes fixed on the frescoed ceilings, or straying into the courtyard that lay just below the pope's apartment, or simply lost in the warren of more than two hundred offices that make up the Apostolic Palace. There were the nutcases, too. Once — it mortified the guards to even remember this — a crazed Italian claiming to be the personal physician of John Paul I had been waved past the normal checkpoints all the way up to the papal apartment. He fell at the feet of the pope, the easily flustered Albino Luciani, who sputtered, "Get him out of here!" That inci-dent was hushed up, because so few people were aware of it. But a conclave was different. If an outsider reached the door of the Sistine Chapel, every-one would know, and the guards would be ridiculed.
The door to the Sistine was locked, of course. But an incident outside would be noticed on the inside. Of that the Swiss Guard was certain, be-cause he himself could hear the cardinals, and at times could even hear what they were saying. Incredibly, their voices occasionally carried through the door, especially when the vote counts were being announced on the in-ternal PA system. It was distracting, and a little bit discomfiting, to be the involuntary recipient of secrets he could never tell. For he, too, had taken an oath never to breach the conclave's inner proceedings, under pain of excom-munication.
The guard couldn't hear everything, but it sounded as if Cardinal Ratz-inger was ahead in the count, which was not surprising. For months, the buzz inside the Vatican had been about Cardinal Ratzinger. The Swiss Guards liked him. The Roman Curia liked him. The papal household liked him. The people in the Secretariat of State were wary — Ratzinger had a reputation for favoring doctrine over diplomacy — but that only enhanced Ratzinger's standing with the others. Most of the Vatican's top people knew he was the most qualified to be the next pope, and had known it for years. They had wisely refrained from saying so until recently; this could not be seen as a curial campaign, or it would be doomed. What it would come down to was the number of votes, and Cardinal Ratzinger would need seventy-seven to cross the two-thirds mark needed for election. Last night he had begun well, and had gained more support this morning. But this evening's balloting was the moment of truth: If Ratzinger pulled up short now, the cardinals would turn to other candidates rather than engage in a prolonged electoral battle.
When the cardinals filed back into the Sistine for the two evening bal-lots, the guard looked closely at their faces. They seemed relaxed. Some were smiling. Smiles, he had decided, meant a quick conclave. The cardinals were human, and they knew that the world was waiting impatiently out-side. A conclave that lasted even four or five days would be described as an impasse, a hopeless deadlock, a sign of a divided church. No one wanted that.
At four p.m. the doors to the Sistine Chapel closed. At the end of the two votes — or after the first vote, if a pope was elected — the ballots, along with the cardinals' notes and tally sheets, would be burned in the stove. Already, there had been problems. Smoke had begun to leak out into the Sala Regia at the end of the first two voting sessions. That had made the guards nervous — it meant there was considerable smoke inside the chapel.
Not as bad as 1978, when a downdraft sent dark fumes back into the Sis-tine and the cardinals came out hacking and wheezing. But it was enough this time to bother some of the prelates and to arouse the alarm of Vatican museum officials, who had spent ten years daubing away the black residue of candle smoke from Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling.
"It's a good thing there were no art historians inside," Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn had commented. He was joking, but not everyone was amused.
Now the Swiss Guard could again hear the voices from inside, no doubt announcing another vote count. He resisted the temptation to move closer to the door and glanced at his watch. It was just after five thirty. It took so long to vote because of the special rite of collecting the ballots. Folding, unfolding. And to gather the ballots, they were using new oddly shaped urns that the traditionalists hated — flying saucers, the press had called them. Suddenly, the guard heard a sound like falling rain. It was a second or two before he recognized it as applause coming from the other side of the door. It began slowly, then grew to a sustained ovation. His pulse quick-ened, and he knew. It was Ratzinger.
The press office had become so crowded by five p.m. that reporters were bumping into one another. I had just finished prewriting two stories: one saying Cardinal Ratzinger was the new pope and the other, much shorter, saying Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi had been elected. I considered Tettamanzi a long shot (I had little idea how long), but I thought the cardi-nals might turn to him early in the conclave as a compromise choice. In my heart, though, I knew that if white smoke came tonight, it could only be Ratzinger. On day two of the conclave, there hadn't been enough time for any other cardinal to gain traction. All of us had profiled third-world papa bili, but none of them would be elected this quickly, on a fourth or fifth ballot.
My colleagues in the Sala Stampa had been divided about Cardinal Ratzinger's chances. The argument against the German cardinal was that he was too doctrinaire, too old and too unpastoral to be elected. Only a few months earlier, the idea of short-listing Ratzinger as a potential successor to John Paul II was dismissed by reporters — with one exception. In January Jeff Israely, the Time magazine correspondent in Rome, had penned a short but intriguing article that quoted a Roman Curia official: "The Ratz-inger solution is definitely on." Three months before Pope John Paul died, the gears were already in motion. Over the past two weeks, as dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger had presided ably over John Paul's funeral and various assemblies of the cardinals, and it became easier to imagine him as pope. Given the scarcity of other papabili, his candidacy had sud-denly taken on an air of inevitability among the voting cardinals, and jour-nalists were picking up the vibe.
I left CNS correspondent Cindy Wooden in our booth and walked out the Sala Stampa door, past the guards who checked credentials and past small knots of journalists interviewing journalists. Saint Peter's Square in front of me was teeming with life. The place was filling up quickly, and re-porters stood like sentries on the perimeter. I watched Alessio Vinci, half-way up a small ladder, do a quick live report for CNN. It wasn't like this in 1978, I thought. That year, when the "white smoke" announcement came over the wires for John Paul II, I had ridden my bicycle from our newspaper office near the Trevi Fountain to Saint Peter's and walked to a spot right under the central loggia, all in time for the habemus papam announcement. Now the square was so packed you couldn't get close to the basilica.
I spotted Monsignor Michael Magee, a fortyish Philadelphia native who worked at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He was talking with a fellow Vatican official at the edge of the square. Theoretically, they were both supposed to be working this afternoon, but who would stay in his office at a moment like this? I stopped to chat with Magee, and we agreed that if smoke came early, it probably meant election, since there was no way they could do two ballots in less than two hours. It was five forty p.m., according to the clock above the bell tower. We both saw the first puff of smoke at the same time. Then another, and the first of many loud cheers went up from the square. "Oh, my God — we have a pope!" Magee yelled, and he and I took off running in opposite directions.
Magee hadn't even stopped to double-check the color of the smoke, and neither had I. We figured it had to be white. I tore back to the press room,
where reporters stood in tense confusion below the TV monitors. I quickly realized that opinions were again divided.
"Too dark," a Spanish colleague argued, and screamed something into his cell phone.
"It's white! Of course it's going to look gray, especially close up on TV, because there's no such thing as 'white' smoke. But it's not black," Pullella said. Just then the smoke turned darker — or was it just the camera angle against the late afternoon sky? Everyone filed "smoke poured out of the chimney" stories. The stories said it looked white or gray and people were cheering. No one dared to state that a pope had been elected.
Father Ciro Benedettini, the vice director of the Vatican press office, scurried through the press room, igniting a small explosion of questions. "Don't ask me," he said. "I know as much as you do."
I called Benedicta Cipolla, one of our reporters in the square. People were excited, she said. They were positioning themselves under the balcony for the announcement, making cell phone calls back home, waving flags — and asking one another whether the smoke was really white. The scene was a mix of elation and confusion. Ten minutes had now passed since smoke had first appeared, and it was still coming out. And the bells?
"They're not ringing."
In the corner of the Sistine Chapel, there was a problem. Every time the stove was opened to add new ballots and papers, it belched dark smoke back into the room. And the chemical cartridges fired in the auxiliary burner were taking too long to ignite, so the smoke that did make it out the chim-ney was darker than it was supposed to be.
"I don't think they practiced this. They should have practiced this," Car-dinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles remarked.
All the cardinals who described the scene afterward had advice — on the timing of the chemical ignition, on the amount of air being let into the cast- iron burner, on how many ballots to put in at one time. Some wondered about the wisdom of running two copper vent pipes — one for each stove — and then joining them halfway up toward the roof. Wasn't that playing havoc with the draw? As my colleague Cindy Wooden remarked, it sounded
a lot like men gathered around a barbecue, debating the finer points of cooking with charcoal.
The smoke was only one of the problems facing Archbishop Piero Marini. As master of liturgical ceremonies, he had been summoned as soon as the final ballots were counted and announced. He arrived in the Sistine Chapel in time to hear Cardinal Ratzinger being asked: "Quo nomine vis vicari?"
The choice of a name was a mini-drama in itself, a new pontiff's first act and a signpost of his papal agenda. Ideally, the name would establish conti-nuity or at least a connection with an earlier pope — but who? "John Paul III" would leave Ratzinger forever in the shadow of his predecessor; "Pius XIII" would appear to signal a retrograde, pre–Vatican II pontificate; "John XXIV" was out of the question.
"Vocabor Benedictus," the new pope replied. And again the place erupted in applause.
Benedict XVI. For Archbishop Marini, the choice was not surprising: Benedict, one of Europe's patron saints. As far as the universal church went, Europe was back in the center. Ratzinger would see to that. There would be fewer trips to Africa and Asia.
The scrutineers gathered the 115 ballots and all the notes the cardinals had made during the voting, which wouldn't make for much of a fire, and that was part of the problem. They'd have to burn some extra paper again. And soon the smoke began to back up into the chapel.
Archbishop Marini stood and surveyed the scene. Not one to fluster easily, the sixty-two-year-old, silver-haired prelate had spent the better part of the last ten years guiding an increasingly frail John Paul II through his public paces. The pope would nearly stumble on the altar, and Mari-ni's arm would be there to grab him. The pope would lose his place in a reading, and Marini's finger would guide him back to the text. It was Marini who had modified the papal liturgies to accommodate a disabled celebrant, and who had helped design a mobile chair that could be raised and lowered pneumatically, enabling the pope to preside at the altar while sitting down. Marini knew that the world watching on TV would barely notice, and that flowing vestments would cover the strap used to keep the pontiff in his chair. And while the past years had brought many near di-
sasters on the altars of the world, Marini had never once panicked. At the end of 1999, people thought he was crazy to let the pope open the Holy Door by himself; John Paul had teetered on the top step in his long Tech-nicolor chasuble, barely able to stay on his feet, but had pulled it off through sheer willpower. As Marini explained afterward, that was the pope's moment; he could not have his master of liturgical ceremonies propping him up. On this and countless other occasions, Marini had worried along with the rest about ceremonial debacle, but he never showed it on his face. He was unflappable, and it was this sense of compo-sure that at times seemed to hold everything together. When the pope died, Marini unlocked a desk drawer and drew out two volumes of litur-gical prayers and ceremonies that he had worked on painstakingly for more than a decade. The books covered virtually every moment from pa-pal death to papal election, and they became the script for what many consider the smoothest papal transition in modern history. The funeral Mass for John Paul was so well staged that when the wind gently blew the pages on the open Gospel atop the pope's casket, one Vatican official re-marked that it was Marini's finest touch.
Marini handled the pope's infirmity and his funeral so deftly that even his enemies grudgingly gave him credit. And make no mistake, he had en-emies. The Roman Curia was split down the middle on his liturgies. The traditionalists despised what they considered the increasingly showbiz as-pects of papal Masses over the years — the native dancers from third-world countries, the exotic music, the showcasing of multicultural gifts and inten-tions and vestments. They hated the flowers, which flowed over and under and around the altar, in clear violation of the Vatican's own rules! They blamed Marini, and were convinced he was a marked man. Especially if Cardinal Ratzinger, a vocal opponent of liturgical innovation, was elected pope.
At that moment, however, Archbishop Marini had no time to reflect on what the cardinals' choice might mean for his ecclesial career. As he and his assistants were adjusting the stove, someone thrust a piece of parchment into his hands. It was the certificate of acceptance of papal ministry, and part of his job was to fill it out and notarize it. He worked quickly, because soon he would have to attend to the new pope and help him choose the proper-sized vestment from the three sets hanging in a small dressing room nearby. Ratzinger, he figured, would be a medium.
By now the cardinals were going up one by one to kiss the hand of the pope, who stood looking very happy and somewhat overwhelmed. It was only then that someone remembered about the bells. Archbishop Marini or one of his top ceremonieri was supposed to call the Fabbrica, where Bishop Lanzani would give the order to the bell ringer. But no one had called the Fabbrica yet. Cell phones were jammed, so that meant sending someone to a landline. On his way to vest the new pontiff, Marini whispered to one of his assistants, who ran to a door, opened it and saw the single Swiss Guard standing at attention outside.
"Find a telephone!" he ordered the guard. "Tell them to ring the campa none! Habemus papam!"
Few people noticed Bishop Vittorio Lanzani as he hurried out of Saint Pe-ter's Square and past the Arch of the Bells. Although he was the number two official at the Fabbrica, he was not someone any tourist would recog-nize. Lanzani was part of the Vatican's invisible hierarchy, and he liked it that way. A slight and unassuming man with thick glasses, he had no ap-petite for celebrity. At age fifty-three he was already on a track that would no doubt lead to the cardinal's hat one day. But for now, he seemed happy to work behind the scenes. The important thing was to do his job well and, especially at this critical juncture — with the world watching — to avoid a misstep.
The last two and a half weeks had turned Lanzani's world upside down. The simple tasks of opening and closing Saint Peter's Basilica, and keeping it clean and maintained, had suddenly been thrown into chaos by the ar-rival of more than three million pilgrims. To his workers, he called the in-terregnum a "beautiful emergency," but privately he had serious doubts about whether the basilica and the Fabbrica staff could withstand the round-the-clock schedule that had been imposed. Saint Peter's was de-signed to hold up to eight thousand people at a time, but these days there were twenty-one thousand people entering the basilica every hour.
The bells were another problem. Most people figured ringing the bells was a simple task, easily executed by anyone who could grab a rope. Lanzani recognized it was more complicated than that. The bell ringer at Saint Peter's needed to know his way around the electrical console. That was Giuseppe Fiorucci's domain, and Fiorucci was as good as they came. But Fiorucci was a layman who went home every night after work. On the night John Paul II died, that had almost led to disaster. Lanzani had been in Saint Peter's Square beneath the dying pope's apartment, helping to lead the rosary for tens of thousands of pilgrims, when a superior whis-pered to him that the pope had passed away. Lanzani suddenly realized they had no one to ring the bell. "Call Fiorucci!" he told an aide, hoping the bell ringer was not already in bed. Reached at home, Fiorucci sped to the Vatican, while church officials in the square kept praying the rosary. When John Paul's death was finally announced to the crowd, Fiorucci was at the console, and the slow, steady tolling of the bells began on cue. Traditionally, the death knell marked the moment of passing, but in this case, as Lanzani later recalled, "I think the pope had been dead for some time."
And now, once again, the world's attention would be focused on the bells. Fortunately, Fiorucci was in place this time. Lanzani had just reached his ground-floor office in the Fabbrica when the call came to the switch-board. Fiorucci picked up. But the caller was not Archbishop Marini. It was someone speaking excitedly in heavily accented Italian.
"You must ring the campanone! The pope has been elected!"
Fiorucci put him on hold and called Lanzani. "There's a Swiss Guard telling me to ring the bell."
Lanzani frowned. The order was supposed to come from Archbishop Marini's office. "Who is this Swiss Guard?" he asked. Fiorucci had no clue. "He's very insistent. He says he's outside the Sistine Chapel."
On the other end of the line, the Swiss Guard was beginning to panic. He pleaded with Fiorucci to ring the bell.
Lanzani had already decided, though: This was not the way things were done. How did he know it was really a Swiss Guard at all, or that he was standing outside the Sistine Chapel?
"We can't start ringing the bell just because some anonymous Swiss Guard calls up and says so. Tell him we need to hear this from someone in authority. A ceremoniere," he told Fiorucci.
CNN had interrupted its regular programming as soon as smoke began pouring out of the Sistine chimney. Now, in a live report from a terraced hillside above Saint Peter's, veteran correspondent Jim Bittermann along with John Allen, the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Re porter, were trying to figure it out.
For Bittermann, it evoked the fiasco of 1978, when he was a Rome cor-respondent for NBC and his network made the wrong call. After proclaim-ing white smoke, NBC waited a half hour in vain. No one appeared at the balcony to announce a new pope. The square was emptying out by the time the network acknowledged the false alarm. It was a story Bittermann loved to tell, but he was not about to make that mistake again. And in his mind, he wouldn't have to — the bells would end all doubt.
Someone handed him a sheet of paper. The Italian news agency ANSA had just pronounced the smoke white. That didn't impress Bittermann. The agency had called yesterday's smoke white, too. Italian journalists looked upon such moments more as theater than as history in the making, and if the color went from white to black it only added to the drama and detracted nothing from their own credibility.
Bittermann watched the crowd grow more excited by the minute. If that smoke turned out to be black, this would be the mother of all false alarms. "The crowd seems to think this is white smoke, that's for sure," he an-nounced to his audience.
The hourly toll of bells suddenly rang across the square. "There go those bells, Jim," John Allen said.
"Right. There go the bells, but it is also six o'clock." "Quite right," Allen acknowledged.
Bittermann watched the CNN camera feed from the campanone. It still wasn't moving. Twelve minutes had passed, and the smoke was still puffing out the chimney. What the hell was going on?
Inside the Fabbrica two men waited for the phone to ring.
Giuseppe Fiorucci sat before his console and listened to the excited voices in the sacristy down the hall. "White smoke!" "Black smoke!" "We should be ringing the bell!" Everyone had an opinion. But back there, deep
inside the basilica annex, you couldn't see the smoke or the square or any-thing else.
People spoke about the "honor" of ringing the bell, but Fiorucci knew better. He sat at these controls because he'd worked at the basilica forty years, not because he'd shown initiative or good judgment in times of crisis or an ability to push the buttons better than anyone else. If people thought he might be nervous or excited to ring the bells for a new pope, they were mistaken. No more than when he had rung the death knell for the old pope. It was what he did, and it wasn't that special. The important thing was to not screw up, not jump the gun. After all, you can't start ringing the campa none and then change your mind. You have to be sure. And with those thoughts, he soothed his mind.
A few doors down the hall, Bishop Lanzani was less philosophical. He stared at the phone. Why didn't it ring?
Someone stuck his head in the door. "They say it's white."
A nightmarish thought crossed his mind: What if no one called over in time? What if the new pope appeared on the balcony before the campanone had begun to ring? Lanzani knew that something like that would not be forgotten.
A new pope. It has to be Ratzinger, he thought. No one else could have pulled it off in four ballots. And that was fine. In Lanzani's view, the church was like a massive ocean liner, and Ratzinger was the only one capable of taking the helm. Unlike most of the cardinals, Ratzinger was a familiar figure to the people who worked at the basilica. He crossed the square daily in his black beret, holding his briefcase, looking very much like a univer-sity professor. He often celebrated Mass in the basilica's Holy Sacrament chapel — in Latin. He would protect the church's tradition, and that could only be good. True, Ratzinger was German, and German popes through history had not distinguished themselves. But the Italians at the Vatican considered him almost one of their own; he'd worked there twenty-four years. And besides, there really wasn't an Italian papabile.
In the past, when the Italian cardinals were split between two of their own candidates, they still had the influence — and the votes — to impose a third Italian, a compromise choice, on the rest of the College of Cardinals. But by now Italian votes had shrunk to 20 out of 115, not nearly enough to set the agenda, and the Italian cardinals themselves were hopelessly divided between Cardinal Tettamanzi of Milan and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the papal vicar of Rome. Liberals still dreamed of Cardinal Carlo Martini, but he was likely to receive only symbolic votes from the "stop Ratzinger" crowd.
Faced with an impasse, the conclave might turn to the third world. But who? Everyone talked about Latin America, but the U.S. cardinals, and to tell the truth many Europeans, were wary of the Latin Americans. The way Lanzani saw it, they were just too unfamiliar with the ways of Rome and would never be able to manage the Roman Curia. Others whispered the code word "maturity" — the Latinos and the Africans represented local churches that were not quite mature enough to produce a pope. Maybe next time. Then there was Asia, but the only cardinal who had much of a chance was India's Ivan Dias, a man who had spent most of his career in the Vati-can's diplomatic service. Once he arrived in Rome, Dias was given a lesson in how quickly a candidacy can be killed. The voci that were planted in the Italian press said Dias was sick, diabetic and needed a personal nurse to help him to and from the cardinals' secret meetings every day. His own de-nials couldn't seem to get into print.
From inside the Vatican, then, all this talk about a third-world pope ap-peared as fantasy. Roman Curia officials sensed the wind was blowing the other way. After twenty-six years of church expansion under John Paul II — the boom in third-world conversions and vocations, the trips that spot-lighted every African village with a Catholic church, the endless dialogues and meetings with leaders of other faiths, the historic gestures of visiting a synagogue or a mosque — it was time to reconsolidate, to take stock, to look inward again. The Catholic Church needed some internal attention, some housecleaning. The odds favored an insider, and Ratzinger was the ultimate insider.
Lanzani looked at the clock. Another five minutes had passed. Then he saw the switchboard light up with an incoming call. He raced out of his of-fice and found Fiorucci's cubicle already crowded. Fiorucci put his hand over the phone.
"He says to ring the bell." "Who is it?"
Fiorucci pronounced the name of a monsignor who worked under Arch-bishop Marini.
Lanzani nodded, satisfied. A ceremoniere. "Now we know," he said slowly, as if offering a lesson to everyone in the room. "Now we know."
He let the message sink in. "Ring the campanone."
Fiorucci flicked a set of switches. In the tower above, a small electric engine hummed and the giant gears turned slowly. A few seconds later, the big bell would begin to move. Habemus papam.
From The Vatican Diaries by John Thavis. Copyright 2013 by John Thavis. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.