March 11, 2013
You Know Not the Day or the Hour
Catholic University students at St. Peter’s Basilica.
On Sunday, Jan. 6, the students and staff of the CUAbroad program attended the liturgy for the Solemnity of the Epiphany at the Basilica of St. Peter's. The Holy Father presided and, during the Mass, ordained four archbishops, two to work in the Vatican and two to serve as apostolic nuncios (the pontiff’s personal representatives) to foreign countries.
The Mass was long, more than three hours and in several languages. But the students were stalwart and paid as much attention as they could despite lingering jet lag (they had arrived the previous Thursday). At the end of the Mass, many were able to greet the former archbishop of Baltimore (and my fellow New Yorker) Cardinal Edwin O'Brien in the basilica's main aisle.
We followed the cardinal's lead (always a good thing to do!) and waited outside in the square for the Holy Father's noon blessing (now delayed until his arrival at 12:25 p.m.) As we waited, I called the students' attention to the location of the Sistine Chapel, next to St. Peter's, part of the Vatican Museum. I noted that, when there is a conclave, a smokestack is installed and it is from there that we learn about the election of the new Pope.
While phrases such as "ancient rituals" and "traditional practices" are often used to describe papal conclaves, in point of fact it has only been since 1903 that the Vatican has used smoke signals to indicate the election of a new pontiff. The smokestack for the papal conclave was installed this past weekend.
Sometimes smoke signals work well. Sometimes they do not. Take the last time. When Pope John Paul II died, I was asked by NPR in Washington if I could be available in the network’s offices during some of the days of the conclave. Because of my teaching schedule (who's compulsive?), I was able to offer them Tuesday and then
from Friday on. I insisted that there would be no Pope on the second day, Tuesday, but that if they wanted me, fine, I could be there through 4 p.m. when I would need to return to campus for the 5:15 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
I rose early that morning to be on set by 5:30 a.m. in anticipation of the first possible smoke signals from Rome, 11:30 a.m. local time. After a bagel and coffee (regretfully not a New York bagel!), I settled in to watch the television in an office at NPR. (Is it a secret that several offices at NPR in D.C. have televisions tuned to CNN?) Black smoke as I expected.
Time to focus on some writing on my laptop and to answer several producers' questions about what happens — how and where — when the pope is elected. A second cup of coffee. A very efficient staff member in a grey pants suit came to my office to ask what my lunch preference was. Turkey on wheat bread, I said. She wrote the order on a clipboard and exited. It was 11:30 a.m. our time, 5:30 p.m. or so Rome time. I glanced at the television screen. Smoke! White, grey, black, and finally white smoke, CNN announced. I was not convinced. Then it turned all white. The producer ran down the hall and told Neil Conan and me to get on set for an early "Talk of the Nation" show.
|The smokestack atop the Sistine Chapel (second spire from the right).|
Was the smoke really white? Who was the new Pope?
We went to studio number three and waited. Then we watched (another television monitor tuned to CNN in the corner) and some of the bells at St. Peter's were ringing. Another signal that the pope was elected. Mr. Conan said, "Looks like we have a Pope!" But I replied, "I'm not sure, those are the wrong bells!"
What was happening inside the conclave to cause the confusion? It turns out that one of the papal masters of ceremonies, perhaps Monsignor William Millea (a former student from Bridgeport, Conn.) did not put enough of the chemical on the ballots that causes the smoke to be white. (We will never know because the conclave is secret.) Then again, how did he know the chemicals were not working -- he could not see the smoke! No blame game.
The other signal was to be the ringing of the large bell on the left side of St. Peter's Basilica. A man was stationed nearby with a cell phone. According to the plan, when he got word directly from Archbishop Piero Marini, the chief papal master of ceremonies, he would toll the bell. The call was delayed. Why? None of the three newly sewn white cassocks fit the new Pope. Archbishop Marini had to think fast about what the Pope would wear. And so he forgot about the bell. When he remembered, the main bell joined the Angelus bells and filled St. Peter's Square and beyond. There is a Pope.
A mixed signal? Or an unpredictable signal? Is that the way we should communicate and be clear? Or is the white smoke like not knowing the time of a baby's birth or someone's death? We begin and end life with mixed or unpredictable signals, don't we? "Stay alert, you know not the day or the hour" (Matt. 25:13). Maybe waiting for smoke signals from the Vatican should be more like a prayer vigil than watching in (admittedly) excited anticipation. What about more reflection on the unpredictable and surprising signals we receive in life?
The next time I invited Monsignor Millea to dinner in Rome I asked whether, in addition to the smoke and the bells, we could have a red and a green light. That way the signal would be clear. Of course, he laughed, as I did. But as I reflect in these pre-conclave days in Rome, I think to myself — what is discernment but watching for signals to become clearer in life, especially in making life-shaping decisions? And yes, in anticipating death.
In Rome, a "tradition" of 110 years is a drop in the bucket. This is the Eternal City, after all. But, then again, any signal that makes us take the gospel seriously and helps us discern what really matters, matters a great deal.
Smoke signals indeed.