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35 years waiting for smoke: A witness to Vatican history

Catholics and the curious flooded St. Peter's Square to greet Pope Francis on the day of the ceremony to officially install him as pope. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.

ROME -- Italians have an expression for things that happen rarely, like running into an old school friend who lives far away. They’ll say they see the person “ogni morte di papa” or “every death of a pope.” 

With only four conclaves in the past 35 years there’s good reason for the expression, despite the fact that Benedict’s surprise resignation may force the phrase to change to “ogni cambio di papa”  or “every change of a pope.”

Though the events are few and far between, I’ve had the pleasure of being here the last three times the white smoke went up. And the election of Pope Francis feels reminiscent of the heady excitement surrounding the election of another outsider: Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II.

Zany charm of a crowd of strangers
The first time I saw the white smoke I was just 16 years old, the editor of my high school newspaper at an American school here in Rome.


It was October 16, 1978, and it was the second conclave in just a few months, because the newly elected John Paul I had died after only 33 days in office. 

St. Peter’s Square was not as well lit as it is today. Only the church’s façade and the Sistine Chapel roof chimney were illuminated. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of almost 100,000 stood in a chilled darkness, sustained by an excited, Christmas-like anticipation of the announcement of a new pope. There’s something quite unusual, a little zany and inexplicably charming about standing in an enormous group of strangers, waiting for an arcane smoke signal to reveal a new leader.

The smoke finally appeared on that October night and there was a rush to interpret whether it was black or white. With a history of spotty results when it comes to ballot burning, there was room for doubt, but it ultimately turned a solid white and a thrill ran through the crowd. The anticipation built even more as we waited for the first appearance on the balcony, and the question “Who will it be?” crisscrossed the crowd in a dozen languages.

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Cardinals from around the world gathered in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church made history that night, electing the first foreign pope in more than four centuries. The red velvet draperies trembled and parted to bring forth a vibrant, youthful Polish cardinal. He immediately charmed the crowd in stumbling Italian, and then went on to radically transform the papacy with intercontinental travel, a constant television presence and a historic moral challenge to the Soviet Union’s harsh rule of Eastern European nations behind the Iron Curtain.

After high school and during college I worked for several of the American network news bureaus in Rome. Pope John Paul II was almost killed by a Turkish gunman in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, and I spent most of 1982 working for ABC News. In June of that year, I flew on my first “papal plane” when the pontiff visited Britain.

Satellite television and videotape had just come of age with John Paul II’s election, and the Pole’s long pontificate would rise, thrive and fall under the unblinking eye of the constant camera lens. For people who had known only one pope their whole lives, John Paul II would come to symbolize Catholicism: both stubborn and frail, often charming but also uncompromising.

Transitional, not transformational
The death of John Paul II in 2005 was mourned by millions. I returned to the Vatican for NBC News in 1996 after many years working in the United States and covered the last decade of his papacy.

Like most of my fellow Vatican watchers, I knew the Polish pope would be an impossible act to follow. Still, I hoped the cardinals would go for a bold choice over a safe one.  

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Benedict was not that bold choice. But clearly the cardinals felt the church would benefit from a transitional figure, rather than a transformational one like John Paul II.

The white smoke came quickly that time, on the third vote after just a day and a half, and the excitement in the square was shared with cellphones in the age of the Internet. 

The election of 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, a full 20 years older than John Paul II at his election, would shift the image of the papacy to a staid, conservative and bookish one.

Many believe resigning was the most courageous act of Benedict’s entire papacy. It took a lot for someone who loves the trappings of Catholic conservatism as much as he does to break with 600 years of tradition, but Benedict did it, making way for one more puff of white smoke.

A swift surprise
This latest conclave also lasted a mere day and a half, a surprise in itself. Unlike the last one, where Ratzinger went in a clear favorite, this time there was an open field, no top contenders, and for the first time in history, not one but two Americans on the short list of possible popes.  

Courtesy Stephen Weeke/ NBC News

NBC News Producer Stephen Weeke walks with American Cardinal Timothy Dolan in Vatican City recently.

I now work out of San Francisco but came back to Rome to help TODAY with this conclave. After working all day at our live location overlooking the Vatican, I made it through the rain and crowds into St. Peter’s Square with minutes to spare before the smoke appeared.

The white smoke poured out of the chimney, with the force and color of something bellowing from a steam-engine locomotive -- there was no ambiguity this time. The crowd went crazy in the age of smartphones and social media, and basically crashed the local cellular network.

I waited for the announcement with other Americans, excited at the prospect of witnessing the arrival of an American pope. When the red drapes revealed a 76-year-old Argentine, I was initially a little disappointed. But the cardinal of Buenos Aires didn’t take long to change that feeling. 

When the new Pope Francis bent down to ask the crowd to pray for him, before he would bless them, I was moved. This man's humility seemed genuine, palpable and extremely public. Its effect on the crowd was immediate. 

Since then he has broken the mold in half a dozen ways. Refusing the papal limo and riding the bus back after his election with his fellow cardinals. Refusing the gold cross and keeping his iron one. Refusing the red slippers and keeping his clunky black walking shoes. Refusing a prepared speech and speaking off the cuff.

By naming himself after Saint Francis of Assisi, a beloved figure whose radical embrace of poverty reformed an ailing and corrupt church 800 years ago, the pope has already telegraphed that he is open to change.

It's high time the world had a pope with a common touch and a flair for the unscripted. Francis is already reminding a lot of us of the young John Paul II. I’m glad I was here to see his white smoke. 

Stephen Weeke was NBC News' Vatican producer from 1996 to 2005. He is now based in Northern California. 

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