THE first week of April for me was better known as ‘Two weddings and a funeral’ … the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, my own wedding, and the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
While the royal wedding had little impact, the other two were momentous for me.
The late John Paul II was a source of great inspiration for me.
At his invitation I travelled to three World Youth Days, I recently graduated from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, and his name was on the Papal Blessing for our wedding.
But our married life began with the journey to Rome to cover the election of Pope John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI.
As the media officer for Cardinal George Pell, I was inundated with requests from the Australian and international English-speaking media to speak to His Eminence about the papal election.
My husband Bernie and I arrived in Rome on April 12. There was a great buzz in the city. While the huge crowds gathered for the funeral had largely dispersed, there were still many people in and around St Peter’s Basilica.
That first night we attended one of the nine mourning liturgies for Pope John Paul II. St Peter’s Basilica was quite full, with most of the congregation participants rather than tourists — the usual tours were not happening at this time.
That night after the Mass, all the gathered cardinals went to visit the tomb of the late Pope beneath the basilica.
From 7am the next day it was open to the media, then the public. Bernie was among the first to view the tomb.
As the week progressed the talk turned to who would succeed Pope John Paul II.
On the morning of April 18, Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated Mass before the cardinal-electors entered the conclave.
We went to St Peter’s hoping to attend the Mass but had underestimated the stringent security and thus the long delay to get in, so we had to be content to watch it on the big screens set up in St Peter’s Square.
Our thoughts and prayers were still with the cardinals but there was a lot of distraction from the gathering crowd.
We went back to St Peter’s Square that night for smoke watch. There was some uncertainty as to whether the cardinals would even vote that day (and therefore maybe no smoke) but we agreed it was better to be safe than sorry.
Expectations were that the smoke would be seen at 7pm, but this time came and went.
Still the crowd gathered. Romans returning from work detoured through St Peter’s Square, just in case.
Tour groups, amazed at their good fortune to be at the Vatican at such an historic time, stopped and waited.
A Scottish man I knew walked past us, a chance meeting but just another sign of extraordinary times.
It took a long time for the smoke to come, appearing at about 8.15pm, with night closing in. There was confusion as the smoke at first appeared white.
Disbelief all around. ‘Surely not so quickly’ was the remark heard. As it continued to pour forth, it became black, and the crowd slowly slipped away.
But we were back the next day for the midday signal. Black again.
We started to walk away, but confusion once more — the bells began pealing for the Angelus. We turned back to the square, but still black smoke and still no pope.
That afternoon, April 19, I was sitting in a cafe in a street off St Peter’s Square. Through the chatter of the patrons, the radio announcers broke through with news. We paid the bill and looked outside. People were literally running to the square.
We joined them. Something was happening. And the bells were pealing. It was around 6pm. Not that the time is so important, it’s just that it caught us by surprise.
High above the gates of St Peter’s the doors opened, and the long awaited words ‘Habemus Papem’ were declared. Cheers all around and the gathering crowd erupted.
More and more people were running to the square, filling in the gaps between groups and individuals.
We had a new Pope! The sense of loss turned to joy as the Catholic family was once again complete.
When it was announced that the new Pope was ‘Cardinal (long pause for effect) Joseph’ everyone in the crowd knew there was only one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
All the cardinals came out onto the balcony and waved to the crowd. The biggest cheer, though, was for Pope Benedict XVI who addressed the gathered crowds (plus the millions through the media) in Italian, French, German and English.
‘Be-ne-dic-to’ was the chant that could be heard, faintly at first but growing louder to reach the new pontiff high on the balcony.
We stayed in the square for many hours that night.
The myriad camera crews, radio journalists and photographers looked for people who could speak about the news in their particular language. The German young people ran around draped in their flag, while the Spanish celebrated with singing and dancing.
At the end of that week we were privileged to attend the installation Mass of Pope Benedict XVI.
I missed not seeing John Paul II presiding but was delighted to see the new Pope, and one who could walk up to the altar.
After Mass, Pope Benedict hopped in the Popemobile and travelled through the crowds.
Memories flooded back to me of World Youth Days, yet the crowd were older and better dressed — but still they ran to get close to the Holy Father.
My husband Bernie and I saw and experienced this new beginning for the Church at the same time as we were celebrating the new beginning in our lives — and gladly shared it with 500,000 of our Christian family! It was a momentous occasion and a great privilege to have been part of.
Marita Winters is the director of Catholic Communications in Sydney archdiocese.