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White Smoke Over the Sistine

The Night in 1978 That Stunned the World

by Delia Gallagher

ROME, OCT. 16, 2003 ( The year is 1978. It is Monday, Oct. 16, 11:17 a.m. Standing in the throng of people in St. Peter's Square is Archangelo Paglialunga, a young Vatican journalist who watches as black smoke billows from a chimney to the right of the basilica. He joins in the disappointed sigh of the crowd.

It is the third day of the conclave that is trying to decide on a new Pope.

Inside the Sistine Chapel, 110 cardinals sigh too. They have been there since 4:45 p.m. Saturday when Monsignor Virgilio Noè, the master of papal ceremonies, pronounced "extra omnes," and the 88 priests, nuns and choir singers who had accompanied the cardinals on their walk from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine were ushered out.

The heavy doors of the Sistine Chapel were shut tight. Cardinals Antonio Samorè, Silvio Oddi and Paulo Arns wandered about inside, checking that all internal doors were closed, while outside the chapel Monsignor Jacques Martin, the head of the Papal Household, and Colonel von Altishofen of the Swiss Guards made sure no one else entered.

Standing under the imposing backdrop of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, French Cardinal Jean Villot, the chamberlain, prayed in Latin, "That God instill in his servants a spirit of patience, of truth and of peace. That they will know what is pleasing to God and will attain it through every effort."

Now, three days later, the cardinals were at an impasse. Neither the conservative Cardinal Giuseppe Siri nor the more moderate Cardinal Giovanni Benelli could garner the necessary votes.

"Maybe it's time for a non-Italian," Cardinal Franz König of Austria said to Poland's Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.

"Not me!" exclaimed Cardinal Wyszynski.

"No, not you," replied Cardinal König. "Cardinal Wojtyla."

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla had been mentioned previously as a good candidate, though no one was sure such a radical choice, the first non-Italian in 455 years, would happen.

Cardinal Wyszynski walked over to Cardinal Wojtyla.

"If you are elected -- don't refuse -- accept," he told his young protegé.

The cardinals sat down to vote.

Outside, 40,000 people stare up at the Vatican rooftop, afraid to look away. Several hours have passed since the black smoke of 11 a.m. and every so often panic is raised when someone imagines that he sees white smoke from the chimney.

At the edge of the square, near the Vatican press office, journalists are debating the possibilities.

"They've moved to a non-Italian," predicted Gianfranco Svidercoschi of Italian daily Il Tempo to his colleague Paglialunga.

The debate is interrupted by a roar from the crowd -- white smoke is seen.

At 6:45 p.m. in the dark of a Rome October evening, Cardinal Pericle Felici comes to the balcony of the basilica. Two seconds earlier he had nudged Cardinal Wyszynski. "How do you pronounce this name?"

"Annuntio vobis," Cardinal Felici began, "gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam, Carolum ..."

"Carolum?" thought journalist Paglialunga as he looked toward Svidercoschi. "They've elected Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri?" He was thinking of the over-80 cardinal who was himself watching from his balcony above the press office.

"... Wojtyla," continued Cardinal Felici pronouncing the Polish name WOY-TEE-WA, as he had been instructed a few minutes earlier.

"Qui sibi nomen imposuit Ioannem Paulum II."

The crowd was momentarily silent as they turned to one another with perplexed looks, "WOY-TEE-WA?"

"They've elected an African!" exclaimed an Italian woman in disbelief.

"No!" corrected the Italian journalists standing next to her. "He is Polish!" they exclaimed in equal disbelief.

The journalists ran off to find biographies and the correct spelling of this unknown Pope while the crowd waited, alive with chatter. "Polish?" "Polish!"

A half-hour passed and suddenly the now-swelled crowd saw Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, appear at the balcony.

No Pope had ever spoken more that the traditional blessing from the loggia. John Paul I, only a month earlier had wanted to, but Monsignor Noè had told him it was not done.

John Paul II immediately demonstrated who was in charge when at 7:20 p.m. he ignored the protests of Monsignor Noè and began to speak:

"Praise be Jesus Christ! Dear brothers and sisters, we are all still grieved after the death of our most beloved John Paul I. And now the eminent cardinals have called a new Bishop of Rome. They have called him from a far country: far, but always near through the communion of faith and in the Christian tradition. I was afraid to receive this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ and in total confidence in his Mother, the most holy Madonna.

"I don't know if I can make myself clear in your -- in our -- Italian language. If I make a mistake, you will correct me. And so I present myself to you all, to confess our common faith, our hope, our trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church, and also to start anew on this road of history and the Church, with the help of God and with the help of men."

These were the first words spoken to the world by John Paul II. The Pope's speech was interrupted four times by applause. Twenty-year, and many speeches later, the same Pope is still interrupted -- and encouraged -- by applause.

(With thanks to Archangelo Paglilunga, dean of the Vatican press corps, who turned down many requests by more important journalists, but agreed to share his memories of that day with me.)

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