Rome woke up this morning to sunny skies and a muddy, fast-moving Tevere that had overflowed its sidewalks as it has so many times this rainy winter. At 11 a.m. or so, the skies darkened and rain came down in torrents, accompanied by thunder and lightning. At 2:30 the skies opened up again, and hail came down in torrents, accompanied by thunder and lightning. I’m afraid to look out the window again this afternoon—I may see snow coming down in torrents, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Doesn’t the weather know that today is the beginning of a momentous occasion: the election of a new pope?
I headed to St. Peter’s Square around noon to buy some special sede vacante MMXIII (vacant seat 2013) stamps issued by the Vatican City State. Because of the poor weather, I rode the bus, even though I could have walked there in 20 minutes. I should have walked—I would have arrived sooner. Traffic heading to St. Peter’s was congested, to say the least.
I finally got to the bus stop and headed up Via della Concilazione, the main drag leading into St. Peter’s Square. It was swamped with people walking, people driving, police trying to direct traffic (which has to be like herding cats in Rome!), tour buses jamming the street—mamma mia! About every 15 steps or so, clergy of all sorts posed before cameras and spoke into microphones as the media tried to make news. St. Peter’s stood quietly at the end of the block—no people on the wide veranda leading into the church, probably because the cardinals were just finishing their prayer service.
The closer I got to the square, the quieter it became, and although a line of people wrapped around the edge of the square as they waited to get into the basilica, the inside of the square was shockingly empty. I saw several excited religious groups in their interesting vestments and many, many TV crews but few tourists. How odd! A few hardy souls had staked out spots next to the barriers up front. I wonder if they’ll stay there until the end of the conclave? It would be too cold for me!
A mobile post office was parked on the left side of the square and a short line of people waited to enter. I walked past it to the “real” post office near the exit from the basilica. I thought for a minute that it might be closed because no people milled around outside. I got to the interregnum stamp window and waited behind three people! Did the weather discourage people from watching the chimney? Do people think that a pope probably won’t be elected today and are waiting for another day?
Several TV stands with lights blazing were set up outside the square—a large one next to the square at the end of Via della Concilazione, another large one at the foot of Via della Concilazione (near the Tevere), and several small ones on the hill to the southeast of the square.
The balcony on which the new pope will be introduced was draped in dark red, as were the pillars that support it. That’s not usually the case. I was surprised that the chimney on the top of the Sistine Chapel is so tiny from the square. If they announce today’s vote (they don’t have to), I wonder how anyone can see the smoke, with such a tiny chimney and such a dark sky.
I don’t like crowds, so I probably won’t go back. I’ll wait for the church bells throughout Rome to toll to learn that we have a new pope. But I’m glad I went today. This is so much fun!
A note about the interregnum stamps: The light green background (€0.70) is for mail to Italy, the light blue background (€0.85) is for mail to Europe, the gray background (€2.00) is for mail to the Americas, and the yellow background (€2.50) is for mail to Oceania. These stamps may be used as postage only during the sede vacante, which ends when the new pope is elected. The stamps depict an angel with two keys covered by a canopy, the heraldic arms of the Vatican chamberlain or camerlengo. The chamberlain acts as the administrator of the Holy See during the sede vacante.