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.
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.
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.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.