No one knows when it will happen, but thousands of believers and tourists are gathered in St. Peter's Square, hoping to be there when history is made and white smoke rises from the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.
"What shall we sing now?" Sister Croce, the nun with the bright blue veil, asks a group of fellow nuns.
"When the saints go marching in!" one of them suggests, and about 20 sisters of the Roman order "Handmaids of Our Lady" join in the tune. Sister Croce strums her guitar to accompany the spontaneous concert under the curving colonnades surrounding St. Peter's Square. Bystanders, tourists, pilgrims and quite a few reporters tap their feet and clap their hands. The nuns, in training in Rome before they are sent abroad to mission stations in Africa and Asia, are passing the time as they wait for a plume of white smoke to rise from the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.
The nuns will not be able to wait as long as it takes for the cardinals sequestered in the Vatican to make their choice, Sister Croce says, adding everyone is in a good mood all the same. "Benedict's retirement, the papal transition - that has not made us sad, we are looking forward to our new pope. Actually, we are always cheerful - we herald glad tidings, after all," the Sister laughs.
Many Romans stop by St. Peter's Square daily now to see whether a new pope has been chosen. Tens of thousands of people gathered in front of St. Peter's Basilica around noon and then again in the late afternoon. The roof of the Sistine Chapel is visible on the right-hand side, topped with a narrow chimney. Since the chimney is barely visible to the waiting crowds, Vatican TV has set up large screens around the plaza to give everyone a good view. "I could imagine a black Pope, an African," an elderly Italian lady wrapped in a fur coat says to the woman next to her. The friend does not agree: "No, it should be Cardinal Scola, it should finally be an Italian." Italy's media favors Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, as the most promising candidate.
According to the Holy See's press office, 5,000 reporters are accredited; some 3,000 of them ,TV journalists who constantly need new stories to bide their time. They have erected makeshift studios on the roof of the colonnades, surrounding office buildings and hotels. Next to the press office on St. Peter's Square, the European Broadcasting Union has set up a three-story structure where dozens of teams can film live broadcasts simultaneously.
"There are broadcasts around the clock," a technician says. "It is always prime time somewhere in the world." TV teams reluctant to pay the horrendously expensive fees and line charges have set up a few meters further away, in the rain and without a good view of the Basilica's dome.
Clean up the Vatican
Ephrahim Balley from Ethiopia wants to be there when history is made. "I am not Catholic, but I live in Italy, so I want to see the new pope," says Balley, waiting for black or white smoke signals with a group of friends. He hopes the Italian candidate will be chosen. "Hopefully, the new pope will clean up his house; there is a lot of dirt," the Ethiopian says. "If the somewhat more conservative Cardinal from Milan is chosen, he may be able to do some good, with the help of God." Who will the new pope be, and when will white smoke billow - naturally, that is the talk of the square.
There are long faces in the plaza, too. A group of high school students from Dallas, Texas, begins to sing "Ave Maria." Two years ago, the Vatican invited the excellent school choir to sing for the pope. The cancellation came after Joseph Ratzinger announced his retirement, shortly before the planned visit. "We came here all the same, and now we're singing for the people here," a student says. "Unfortunately, we won't be able to sing for the new pope, since we fly back to Dallas on Thursday." St. Peter's Square has also become a stage for protesters. Topless activists of the Ukrainian Femen women's group briefly demonstrated in the plaza Tuesday evening before the police dragged them away.