The Election of Pope Benedict XVI – A Mamma’s View

Joseph Ratzinger moments after he was elected Pope. April 19, 2005.

Today marks the 7th anniversary of the election of Pope Benedict XVI.  The period before and after the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI was probably the most professionally intense of my life.  There were great challenges to keep job and family afloat.  It was also incredible thrill, an adrenaline high, to  have a front row seat on history.

I had been preparing for the conclave since my first days on the job at AP Television in 1994, trying to understand all the byzantine rules and secretive rituals involved in electing a Pope. For anyone who is not familiar with the Conclave it is when the College of Cardinals is locked inside the Sistine Chapel for rounds of secret balloting until they choose a Pope. After each round, the ballots are put into a small stove, a worker then adds a special chemical to make the smoke black or white.  Black if the balloting has been inconclusive, white if they have selected a new Pope.

The ultimate reward for all my preparation was to be among the few journalists permitted into the Sistine Chapel the day before the voting for the next Pope was to start.  We got to see up close the chimney they constructed for burning the ballots and putting out the white or black smoke and the special tables set up for the Cardinals to sit at and cast their ballots. All this under Michelangelo’s spectacular frescoed ceiling.

Freeze Frame of Vatican TV video of Cardinals at the opening of the Conclave in the Sistine Chapel , April 18, 2005

AP Television had been door-stepping the Cardinals for days. (See Post on Door-stepping the High and Mighty). Every time a Cardinal emerged from a doorway or gate and was found walking anywhere around St. Peter’s, we were chasing him, trying to extract information on how the conclave would go.  Who was up, who was down?  Would the next Pope be from Latin America?  Was there a chance for an African?

Before the beginning of the conclave to elect the next Pope, the Cardinals were closed off in the Santa Marta complex, more or less a hotel inside the Vatican Walls.  They each had their own room with a bathroom, and ate in a common dining room.  They were not allowed to communicate with the outside world, no phones, TVs, newspapers, or Internet.

The conclave began on April 18.  The first round produced black smoke, meaning they had not elected a Pope.  On April 19, the second day of the conclave, I felt sick. I had been working non-stop for months starting in February waiting under John Paul II’s window at the hospital.  I decided to run home for a rest during the three hours of the afternoon balloting when the Cardinals would be closed in the Sistine Chapel. AP had a huge team of journalists, producers, cameraman covering the story. My job was to stay in the square with Gianfranco Stara, AP Television’s Senior cameraman in Rome.  I left him with dozens of other cameramen and photographers by the obelisk in center of the square and ran home.

At home, my children were giving Araci, my lovely Cape Verdian live-in babysitter, a hard time.  No chance of getting any rest at home.  The kids wanted my attention, and rightly so,  I had not been around much. My son begged me to take him back with me to the Vatican.  I had foolishly convinced myself that the conclave would drag on for days, and I figured it would not hurt to bring Nico down to the square to absorb the atmosphere. In the taxi I explained to him how a conclave works:  there would be white smoke if the Cardinals had chosen a Pope, black smoke if the vote was inconclusive. I said that we would be seeing some black smoke because it was only the second day of voting  and it takes time to choose a Pope.

Our taxi dropped us off at the end of Via della Conciliazione, and as we were making our way towards St. Peter’s Basilica a shout went up from the crowd, “Fumo!” (Smoke!)  I grabbed Nico’s hand and started to run.  We could not tell what color the smoke was.  White, gray, dark gray, not black?  The crowd was confused.  The bells were supposed to ring if a Pope had been elected. They weren’t ringing. We pushed through the throngs of people.

Giornalista, giornalista!” I shouted waving my press pass as I climbed over wooden barriers in the square, dragging Nico behind.  We made it to the obelisk in the center of the square where a space had been blocked off for camera crews and photographers. Gianfranco was filming the smoke.  Finally, a few big puffs burst out, clearly white.

The bells began to toll. The crowd roared.  I called into AP radio to describe the atmosphere in the square.  While I was reporting, my colleague, journalist Wolf Achtner, filmed me for his excellent documentary “Transition” about the Papal transition from the death of John Paul II to the election of Benedict XVI.

Trisha Thomas reporting live for AP Radio in St. Peter's Square while waiting for new Pope to emerge. April 19, 2005. Freeze frame of video shot by Wolf Achtner for his documentary "Transition".

As I spoke, I could feel the goose bumps of excitement.  I looked at Nico; the next day would be his 10th birthday. “Wow,” I thought, “how many 10-year-olds get to be a witness to history? Maybe it is not so bad to have a working mamma.”

Minutes later Cardinal Josef Ratzinger emerged on the balcony, the next Pope, Benedict XVI.

 

10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Liz Cameron
    2012/04/20

    This is a wonderful post – amazing how the mama self and the giornalista self morph! BTW – you should consider adding hyperlinks to old posts in the text of the blog itself – for example – where you write “AP Television had been door-stepping the Cardinals for days” you could hyperlink “door-stepping the high and mighty” (I think that was the post?) to increase google web crawling and hits. XO.

    Liz

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/04/20

      Thank you Liz, and thanks for the advice, I will go add the Door-stepping link now.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Kathleen Botsford
    2012/04/20

    Great story. So glad you got back there in time. I had goose bumps too but not for the same reason. I had been following Ratzinger’s career as Grand Inquisitor for years and years. I lit candles and prayed. I kept vigil. The only cardinal I had strong feelings about was Ratzinger. I cried for days when he was elected. Sad tears, very sad tears. Oh well. Now we are on to our own election dramas over here. It never ends. Just repeats and repeats and repeats. Have you seen “The Borigas” yet? Much embellishing but very interesting just the same!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/04/21

      Kathleen — Always great to get your comments. I am trying to avoid giving my opinions on my blog on stories I cover, but I will reveal a little one here. If you see the picture of me in the post, you can tell how happy and excited I was. It was moments before the announcement of Josef Ratzinger. I was convinced the Conclave would elect a Latin American Pope and I was thrilled at the idea that there would be a Cardinal from the third world. It was disappointing to me to see a Vatican insider elected. I felt that the Vatican needed the same kind of fresh air and renewal that John Paul II brought with him from Poland in 1978. I am also bothered that my post on the Pope’s election came out on the same day that the Vatican cracked down on American nuns. I have not yet reported on the story, but it is upseting to me that the Vatican would crack down on nuns for dedicating themselves to “poverty” and “social justice” and not enough to fighting “abortion” and “gay marriage”, and as a woman I find it disappointing that the Vatican would appoint a man to oversee them. Last Monday was the Pope’s 85th birthday and those of us in Rome who cover the Vatican are beginning to think about the next conclave and who are the “papabili” or possible Pope successors. The way the College of Cardinals is now, there are a lot of Italians and Europeans, making the odds higher that an Italian could be the next Pope. The Italians are desperate to take back the papacy. My personal view goes right back to the one I had in 2005, I think it is time for a Latin American.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Jim Braker
    2012/04/22

    Trisha, What a day and period in your “mamma” life as you described the day of election! It is well you take the time to record these amazing as well as mundane experiences/observations that may, well, find their way into a forthcoming book. I couldn’t resist mentioning, however, my visit to the Sistine Chapel in Nov., 1997 when my name was broadcast over the public address system! Were I to stop there, some might think the Pope, hearing this Baptist minister was in town had a notion to get some advice, etc. What, however, had happened was that Flo was elsewhere and not seeing a deep curb stepped down and tore soft tissue in her right foot prompting my summons to the medical office. We had left Torino for me to preach at the Methodist church near the Vatican. However, learning to stop early enough in a story can prompt the reader/hearer to fill in their imaginative details producing a more exciting account!
    Keep up your good work at home and elsewhere. Ciao! Jim Braker

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/04/22

      My goodness, they called your name on a loudspeaker in the Sistine Chapel???!! I had no idea they even had loudspeakers in there. You must have thought it was God himself calling you up for the Last Judgement, ready to turn the Protestant into one of those poor suffering creatures in Michelangelo’s hell. Oh, the thought of you standing their hearing your name called out really makes me laugh!! (I hope Flo was ok)

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Kathleen Botsford
    2012/04/23

    So glad to hear your views. I cannot believe what he did with the nuns. I was at our Catholic high school’s fund raiser this weekend talking to our president, a Viatorian priest about him and this issue especially. Then Cardinal George walked by making my heart cry in memory of his predecessor, my hero, Cardinal Bernadin. Ahhh….the Church…..I believe She is in the process of cleansing Herself from the inside out of the male hypocrisy and lack of Christ centering. The pedophile priest scandal is just the tip of the ice berg. And yes, the one thing that brought me comfort was the fact of his age. Love your blog!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/04/23

      Thank you Kathleen, I love reading your comments. The whole Catholic Church is so difficult to understand it. I struggle with it myself both professionally and personally. Before I married my Italian husband I was asked by his family if I would sign a piece of paper in front of a priest agreeing to raise my children Catholic (I am protestant). I did it, and I have remained true to my word taking them regularly to Catechism classes for communion and confirmation. There are plenty of things though that the Vatican does, that I cover for my work that I do not agree with or approve of. I also get bombarded by my kids for explanations of Catholic church and Vatican policy. But that is worth a whole new blog post. Thanks again for your comments.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Kathleen Botsford
    2012/04/24

    my husband is also a “protestant” and an attorney. While he knows alot about law, he knows hardly anything about religion of any sort. He never knew where the word “protestant” came from. Anyway, he also signed the paper and was true to his word. Catholic schools all the way, even when we couldn’t afford it. You should have heard my kids when they were in high school. “Mom! do NOT bring up anything about the Goddess and women and the Inquisition and on and on and on” when I was off to a meeting with their teachers. It was a riot!
    I used to tell them. “OK. here’s the Church’s rule and here’s why they think that way. And now here is why I think they are wrong and why.”
    I just want them to learn to question and not let ANYONE lead them around by the nose. I did not grow up with that freedom.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/04/25

      Kathleen — you are clearly a great Mom! Teaching your children to question is so important. In general, I am all for it, although these days my children seem to be questioning me and all my opinions way too much, but I am sure this will pass too.

      Reply

Leave a Reply