What it was like to be in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis was elected

March 14, 2013

Papal Election

By Scot Landry, March 14, 2013

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It was pouring rain when George and I made our way to St. Peter’s Square at 5:15pm Rome time.  I remember thinking how unlikely the smoke would billow out around 5:30pm, which would mean that the new Pope was elected on the 4th ballot.  I thought we’d be standing in the rain for a couple of hours until the smoke after both afternoon ballots (#4 and #5) would emanate from the world’s most famous chimney around 7:00.  Thank goodness the golf umbrellas only cost about 5 euro here and umbrella salespeople are ubiquitous in rainy days in Rome.

As I passed a factory that sells Rosaries in bulk on the Borgo Pio, I remember thinking to myself that I really should get some “just in case”, but I thought at best it was a 10% chance we’d meet the new Pope on Wednesday and I didn’t think I had enough “hands” to carry all the communication equipment (tape recorders, iphones, microphones), an umbrella and then bags of Rosaries.  So we passed on buying rosaries.

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When we got to St. Peter’s Square, the rain increased its intensity.  Piazza security was funneling people under the Colonnade to check their bags.  The big problem with that pattern of traffic flow was that thousands of people without umbrellas were crowded underneath the covered roof – and the exits and entrances to the Square were packed.  I felt like a fish swimming upstream against a strong current, but we eventually made it onto the Piazza.

On the Square itself, it was a multi-color sea of umbrellas from 5:15 through about 7:15.  It was raining very hard.  We meandered all the way near the St. Paul Statue about 20 people deep, which gave us a good view of both the Sistine chimney and the large TV screen projecting a large image of it.

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No one expected to see white smoke.  Everyone that I had spoken with all week thought that we would go at least 2 more rounds of black smoke before we might meet our new Pope.

At 7:02, the crowd erupted with excitement.  The umbrellas in front of me were obscuring the large screen.  The darkening skies were making it hard to see the first fumes but I could tell in the excitement that it MIGHT be white.  2 seconds later, I saw the white smoke both on the chimney and on the TV screen.   Then I heard the bells – which were loud and moving.

White Smoke! – Video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNVEYSzOHt0

My brother Fr. Roger Landry was on Fox News at the time [I’ll always give him a hard time about predicting that Cardinal Scola, on such an early election, would therefore be the pope!]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vWNBdG_gi0

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It was stunning and seemed unfathomable.  The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 to become Pope Benedict XVI took 4 ballots.  How could this “wide open” conclave produce a new Pope in just 5 ballots?  I spoke with those gathered around me from Boston – George Martell, Terry Donilon, and Brad Tatum from WHDH – that it must mean that one of the front-runners would be the new Pope.  I thought we would probably see Cardinal Scola from Milan, Cardinal Ouellet from the Congregation of Bishops or perhaps even one of the Americans – Cardinal Seán or Cardinal Timothy Dolan from New York.

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Brad was in telephone conversations with WHDH back in Boston.  They asked if I knew how long it would be until we saw the new Holy Father.  I said the norm was anywhere near 45 minutes (about how long it took Pope Benedict XVI to appear in 2005) to two hours.  I said it would likely be longer this year because they added to the official post-election stop in which the newly-dressed-in-white Bishop of Rome would stop for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and private prayer before appearing on the central balcony.  So I guessed that it would take about an hour and that we’d hear “Habemus Papam” about 8:00pm.

At about 7:30, the sense of anticipation started to make me very nervous.  I tried to imagine what was going through the newly elected Pontiff’s mind right at that moment.  My reflections turned to the thought, “What if it is Cardinal Seán?”  I admire Cardinal Seán and like him personally very much.  I started to get anxious, like a son or daughter would feel if they were awaiting the news from a surgeon about how important surgery had gone for their parent or someone close to them.  There’s nothing you can do in that moment but wait, pray for patience, and pray that God blesses everyone involved.

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My wife, sister and several friends began texting me during the process.   Everyone asked if I thought the new Pope would be Cardinal Seán or they expressed that they were hoping it was him.  A text back to my wife briefly expressed my thoughts: “Half of me hopes it is Cardinal Seán.”  I was very conflicted.  I knew he could be a wonderful Pope for the Church as he has been a wonderful Archbishop of Boston.  But the change in his life where he couldn’t go out for a meal, or take a simple walk in public, or go to a bookstore and browse the collections would be tough on anyone.  How could you wish that on anyone?

To change my focus, I began recording several one-minute iPhone videos for my family and for my son’s Catholic School.  I felt like I was in the middle of history, no matter who walked out on that balcony, and I wanted to share it with others.  I recorded several other videos of different moments in that hour of anticipation that are embedded/linked here.

Thankfully during this period the rain stopped and people folded up their umbrellas so there weren’t obstructed sight lines.  Because the balcony is so high, everyone essentially had a good view of it, which was very cool.  Putting my own umbrella away allowed me to think about how I could both shoot iPhone video while also recording the ambient sound of being in the Square on our Zoom recorder.  George was busy taking photos of the people and the events at the loggia and his hands were full, as were Terry’s and Brad’s.

Luckily for me, I heard a young college-age student about five people back speaking English with his friends.  I glanced at him and saw that he wasn’t holding a camera.  So I went back and asked him if he’d like to help me out and hold up our Zoom Recorder in the crowd.  I told him I’d be happy to give him $20 for dinner if he did.  Much to my delight, he was SUPER excited and not only held the recorder for me but he held it over his head for the next 30 or so minutes.  The poor boys arms must have been very tired!  Here is the ambient sound he recorded of the waiting period, announcement and greeting, and then shorter edited versions of the main messages.

Full audio sequence from about 7:40 to the end of Pope Francis’ remarks – How we heard it in St. Peter’s Square.

Habemus Papam Announcement – How we heard it in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis’ Remarks – – How we heard it in St. Peter’s Square.

About 8:00pm, the lights went on in the Central Loggia and you could see shadows moving behind the drapes.  That meant it would just be moments before we learned the identity of our new Pope.

Then the central doors opened up and Cardinal Tauron of France spoke these words:  Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam! Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum GEORGIUM Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem BERGOGLIO qui sibi nomen imposuit FRANCISCUM [which translated means “I announce to you a great joy. We have a pope! His Most Eminent and Reverend Lord, Lord JORGE Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church BERGOGLIO, who has chosen for himself the name of FRANCIS.”]

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The problem for all of us in the square is that Cardinal Tauran spoke so fast.  He’s afflicted by Parkinson’s disease and some say it affects his speech and its pace.  I wasn’t sure what he said.  I thought I heard “Bergoglio” and recalled his name from the 2005 Conclave.  But this early in the conclave I didn’t think it could he him. He hadn’t been on ANY lists of papabile that I saw this time. I recalled Cardinal George from Chicago indicating at a recent press conference that the media basically had the same names on their lists that he had on his own list.

However, because it was the last word spoken, all of us from Boston knew we heard the name “Franciscum”, and for a moment, we thought it might still mean Cardinal Seán was chosen.  We had all thought Francis would be a great name for him if he were elected Pope.

I remarked to them though that I might have heard “Bergoglio,” that he is thought to have been the runner up in the 2005 conclave, and that Vatican followers considered him too old to be elected this time.

People watching at home on television likely had a commentator explain immediately that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was the new Pope.  But those few minutes of not knowing for us in the Piazza sure felt like hours.

About 5 minutes later, some of Terry’s friends started texting him that it was true that the Argentine Cardinal had been elected.  So we knew it would be Bergoglio taking to the central balcony in a white papal cassock in a few minutes.

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In a night of surprises, one of the striking moments for me was how quiet St. Peter’s Square became in the time between the “Habemus Papam” announcement and the appearance of Pope Francis.  I’m not sure if it meant that those without a friend texting them still were confused as to the identity of the new Holy Father or whether it meant that they were praying for him.

The Cardinals then came out on all the other balconies in the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica.

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Then the doors opened and Pope Francis stood before us for a couple of moments.  He seemed overcome by the sight he was beholding.  I thought to myself ,“Wow, just about an hour ago he accepted the Papacy.  He’s had to dress, greet all the Cardinals, pray, review what he was going to say and then he finally come to the Central Balcony.  Now he is looking out over hundreds of thousands of gathered faithful, perhaps also thinking about the 1 billion Catholics and 7 billion people he will serve in the world.  What a lot to process in just a short time!”

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Pope Francis Meets the People – Video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZH4CU1byPY

Pope Francis Greets Rome and the World – Video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yz8q-CVrXZA

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Then he greeted us.  [Translation courtesy of Rocco Palmo – Comments in brackets by me]

Brothers and sisters, good evening! 
[Great that he referred to us as his brothers and sisters.  St. Francis always emphasized that we are all brothers and sisters.]

You know how the duty of the Conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals have gone to take him from the edge of the world… but here we are.
[His first use of humor as our Holy Father, describing Argentina as the edge or near the southernmost point of the world].

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I thank you for your welcome. The diocesan family of Rome has your bishop: thank you!

[He already has mentioned being the Bishop of Rome twice, not any of his several other titles such as Pope, Holy Father, Pontifex Maximus, His Holiness, etc.].

And before anything else, I’d like for us to pray for our bishop-emeritus, Benedict XVI.
[Interesting that again he focuses on his predecessor as “Bishop of Rome” not “Pope of the World.]

Let us pray together for him, that the Lord bless him and Our Lady keep him in her care….
Our Father….
Hail Mary….
Glory Be….

[Isn’t it wonderful that one of his first moments as Pope he gets the world to pray together as one family – prayers that we all know?]

And now, together, let us start this road: bishop and people. This (new) path of the Church of Rome, which “presides in charity” (over) all the churches. A path of brotherhood, of love, of trust between us. Let us pray always for ourselves: one for the other. Let us pray for all the world, that we all might know a great fraternity. I wish you that this journey as Church, that we begin today and on which my Cardinal-Vicar (of Rome) will help me, might be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city!

[He is signaling the priority of evangelization in his pontificate.]

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And now I’ll give you my blessing… but first – first, I ask you this favor: before the bishop blesses his people, I ask that you pray to the Lord that he might bless me: the prayer of the people, seeking God’s blessing for their bishop. In silence, please pray over me….

[Pope Francis bows to the crowd.  This was the most amazing part of his address!  He communicated through gestures the power of prayer, even to pray for someone we will all call ‘His Holiness.’  His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, is thought to have said ‘preach always, and sometimes use words.’  That’s EXACTLY what Pope Francis did last night with this gesture and in his time in Buenos Aires.]

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Now I give my blessing to you and all the world – to all men and women of good will….

[How awesome it was to be there to receive his first public blessing as Pope.]

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Brothers and sisters, I leave you, but only for now. Many thanks for your warm welcome. Please pray for me often!

[He knows he needs our prayers and he also knows that he should ask for them.  I think the world is going to learn a lot about prayer from our new Holy Father!]

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I’ll see you soon – tomorrow I want to go pray to Our Lady (Salus Populi Romani – her shrine at St Mary Major), because she’s the one who cares for Rome.  Good night and sleep well!

[Like many Latin and Central American Catholics, Pope Francis has demonstrated a huge devotion to our Blessed Mother and he wants to express his devotion to Our Lady as one of the first things he’ll do as Pope.]

Once he left the balcony, I lingered a few moments just to soak in what we had all been through.  What an emotional and moving experience to have been lucky enough to be in the Piazza San Pietro on this night!  I thought, “too bad I didn’t bring any rosaries for the blessing.”  [However, now I have time to bring them for the Angelus on Sunday.]

Habemus Papam Video – CatholicTV Network

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnjOxC4pHVo


Brad Tatum invited me to come with him to provide my life reactions to Kim Khazei on Channel 7.  I accepted.  Exiting the square was unlike anything I had ever been through.  I’m used to leaving Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium or the TD Garden after a game.  What I didn’t notice until last night is that the crowds there are always going in the same direction – out.  Last night people were going in every direction.  Those in the back wanted to move up front to get a closer picture of St. Peter’s and the balcony.  Those in the front were moving toward the back.  It seemed like those on the left and right were also criss-crossing the Square.  Everyone was nice and in a great mood but it was a crazy scene to try to leave the Piazza.

When we got to the top of the Associated Press offices just outside the square (whose space was being rented by WHDH, EWTN and many other TV stations), I saw my brother Fr. Roger and Brad invited him to join the interview.  I was thrilled by the fact that Roger was there and was not needed by EWTN at that moment so that we could share our reflections together back with our family, friends, neighbors and fellow Bostonians on such a historic night.

Direct Link to WHDH interview:


It was a night to rejoice.  Habemus Papam!  Pope Francis is a Pope of firsts.  First Pope from America.  First Jesuit to become a Pope.  First Pope to take the name Francis.  I think we’ll find him to be a Pope of prayer, simplicity, humility and of powerful gestures.

I encourage us to do what he has asked of all of us.  Please say a brief prayer for him right now.

God bless you.
Scot Landry

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3 Responses to “What it was like to be in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis was elected”

  1. Nick Ables Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience! My wife and I were watching on our TV and Pope Francis’ love just emanated through the TV. He is so full of love and so holy. The more I read and learn about him the more impressed I am. God truly has blessed his Church!

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