A couple years ago, I walked out of a Nebraska thrift store with the close friends I had come with, a couple new-to-me skirts I hadn’t, and the satisfaction of time and money well spent. One of the skirts in my shopping bag was particularly feminine and flowery, and billowed out perfectly when its wearer spun around. My friend Lucy and I split its cost with the shared understanding that this particular skirt would dance its way between our closets. We never really planned for it to go between our suitcases too.
When Lucy went to Rome in the spring of 2012, it was an easy decision to send the skirt with her. I also, then, took the skirt with me this year on my own Roman adventure, having no idea how much of an adventure it would really be. The Conclave, for instance, was unexpected.
March 13 was the most personally convenient time for a new pope to be chosen; I would not need to run across the city, dodging people and vaulting mini-cars. Instead, we had set time aside to go and pray in the square, and of course keep an eye on the Sistine chimney. So I went, with the thirty-three other students in my Catholic Studies Study Abroad program. And I wore the skirt.
I did a bit of singing and dancing in the rain down the streets of Rome, fabric swishing underneath my trench coat and over the tops of my boots. When we entered the square, there were already many people present, from seemingly everywhere in the world. Most of them were holding umbrellas, beautifully arched over heads, a ridiculous amount of patterns and colors. We prayed, talked and waited. And waited. And a seagull, I presume wanting to be on TV, landed on the top of the smokestack. And we waited longer.
And suddenly, there was gray smoke. Gray? Everyone was trapped in confusion for a couple seconds, but as we saw the smoke become whiter and whiter, our confusion turned into desire for a good view. There was a mad rush for the front of the square, closest to the doors where the new Pope would emerge. I grabbed onto one of my classmate seminarian’s book bags and listened to the joyful yells of another classmate seminarian gripping my shoulder as we snaked toward the front, “LISA! WE HAVE A POPE! WE HAVE A POPE!”
We waited in suspense for an hour under our group’s US and papal flags. I was in a sea of umbrellas, cameras, reporters and conjecture. The Swiss Guard band played and marched. Then they stood still for a long time (I sometimes think they are some of the best statues in Rome).
Someone turned the interior lights of St. Peter’s on to a collective gasp from the thousands below. Something rustled the curtains inside the balcony door. A cameraman emerged to groans. FINALLY the proclamation sounded, “Habemus Papam.” An absolutely joyful noise erupted, screams and cries of “Papa!” emerged all over.
Once we quieted down, the cardinal announced the elect’s name to more confusion. Who? Finally the word circulated and was confirmed through technology, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Papa Francesco. Chants of “Francesco, Francesco!” prompted his first steps onto the balcony. He stood, taking in the crowd, probably overwhelmed with the day he was having. And then his words cut through the cheers, “Buona sera. Come stai?” Good evening. How are you? We laughed and he went on.
He spoke in Italian, I didn’t understand all of it, but I did know he asked us to pray for him in silence; I’ve never heard Rome quite that quiet before. I also could see that he loved us in humility. I was so happy to have a Papa again. In the midst of it all, I found it beautiful that I was still very much connected to home, holding the hem of the skirt. Lucy, my family and other friends, were on my mind, in my prayers, and also under the subsequent blessing of the new Holy Father. I like to think the skirt can retain a bit of it too… Viva il Papa!