Waiting for History

Little sister JoelLittle sister Joel

Little Sister Joel travelled with circus workers throughout the USA for 30 years, and is now in the midst of a time of service at the English Secretariat at our General House in Rome. She kept a vigil of sorts in St. Peter's Square during the Papal Conclave in March, working on her English translations and waiting for the white smoke to indicate that a new pope had been elected. She sent the following:

It is 10:25 am Wednesday morning, and I have just arrived at St Peter's Square with my folding stool and umbrella in hand, and a backpack with lunch and my day's translating work. It's raining and rather cold. But there is quite a crowd here already as the first "smoke signals" of the day should appear soon. I came straight to the colonnade to have both a bit of shelter from the rain and a good view of the smokestack. There are three large screens set up around the square with their cameras focused on the smokestack; the square is a sea of multi-colored umbrellas.

I just happened to be here in 1978 for my theology studies when John Paul II was elected, and a group of us had sat on the basilica steps for hours. But the steps are closed off now for security reasons; machines like the ones at airports are set up at the far end of the colonnade. I also came here yesterday for the Mass of preparation for the Conclave, going through the machines into the basilica. The Mass was at 10 am but the doors closed at 9:30 as it was already packed. I would surely have seen more staying at home and watching it on TV or the internet, but it was lovely to feel the atmosphere of prayer and to be part of the universality, harmony, and peace in our world so torn apart by divisions and war.

As I came with work to do, it really reminds me of being on the midway working at the Circus! I secretly wonder if I came here out of homesickness for the road and selling ride tickets, T-shirts, and hats in all sorts of weather and conditions...

Vatican white smokeVatican white smoke

It's 11:40 am now and the smoke just appeared, very black. The crowd is thinning quickly... and suddenly it is draftier without all those people behind us. Another Vietnamese little sister just arrived.  We picnicked together and are passing the time working, and in between we run some errands. On the way back from one errand I stopped at the San Lorenzo International Youth Center, founded by John Paul II for young pilgrims. It is a lovely brick chapel, less ornate than most Vatican area churches, and well hidden. They have been having adoration of the Blessed Sacrament all day and night there during the conclave. Another stop was at the Vatican Post Office, which has tables and chairs where you can write a post card and send it off with beautiful and timely Vatican stamps (today, a "Sede Vacante" or "Vacant See" stamp.)

Francis and umbrellasFrancis and umbrellas

It's now 4:20 pm, and the video screens are suddenly back on! We sit in the rain, hoping... The numbers of people are swelling again. With all the water around it reminds me of waves in the sea! Standing here waiting by one of the pillars, a couple of things struck me: first, that with all the ultra-modern means of communication today, we return to "smoke signals," and secondly, the power of secrecy! They both may seem rather old-fashioned, but by the number of people here I'd say they are evidently quite attractive and refreshing in our age of instant communication and awareness of everything that is going on! For me, hearing the Cardinals swearing to secrecy yesterday and the closing of the doors of the Sistine Chapel touched something of the mystery of the Divine, reminding me of a respect for the divine in our lives that needs to be nurtured, and that there are some things we really do not need to know and will never know. Like God calling to Moses out of the burning bush, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground." Or the Lord's telling us to go into our rooms and pray in secret. The psalmist prays, "Teach me wisdom in my secret heart." Jesus is totally approachable and invites us to intimacy with him, but he remains a mystery to us nonetheless, and neither a lifetime of study nor a lifetime of intimacy can bridge that mystery. But then, that is true of any relationship. There is always the unknowable about the other, that part in each of us that remains secret and hidden, most often even to ourselves... and it is where the Divine somehow dwells in us... That was my last entry on the Square, and now I am writing from home to capture my memories while they are still fresh. I think it was about 7:10 pm when we finally saw the white smoke... lots of it! They must have had lots of paper to burn! And then the bells of St. Peter's began to peel, with bells all around the city chiming in. Amazing to feel the joy of the bells and to experience the crowd swelling by the minute!

It was another hour before the "Habe-mus Papem" was announced and Pope "Francesco" appeared on the balcony. Just before he arrived the rain stopped enough that everyone could close their umbrellas and see better! Actually neither Maria Binh nor I could understand who they announced, but we began to hear a murmur through the crowd that he was Argentinian. To say I am pleased with the choice is an understatement! Before giving his blessing, he asked all of us in the crowd and those watching on internet and TV for a moment of silence to bless him. The stillness and silence that fell upon the crowd was incredible. The silence of our hearts at that moment had something in common with the silence of the smoke signals, the zone of secrecy and unknowing behind the walls of the Sistine Chapel, and Benedict XVI's resignation and withdrawal into silence and prayer. They are all unusual happenings in our world today, quite counter-cultural, but they have somehow created a holy space for a birth, a new beginning.

The trip back home was another experience. The crowd was like a wall in the dark, with all of us packed together so tightly there was no option but to move with the flow, and no possibility of looking down to see what your feet were doing. It was like a slow tsunami pouring into the streets and sidewalks all the way to the metro 5 blocks away. The Rome police were everywhere, helpful and prepared. At the entrance to the metro there were a couple of police controlling the flow down the stairs and telling us when to step down as it was still impossible to see one's feet. I was really grateful there were two of us. We clung to each other so as not to get separated, but also for support as it sometimes felt like body and feet were going in opposite directions. What a nice surprise to find the metro ticket gates open and free passage for all!

And so, I am grateful for this day filled with "spaces" of waiting. It made me feel like I had a part in the birthing. May Pope Francis help all of us continue to create the human community together, each of us contributing our gifts and putting them at the service of others, tapping into the secret silence of our hearts to allow a new Spirit to be born...