‘I feel like a child waiting for Christmas’

People huddle under umbrellas as they keep watch on the smoke stack (Photo: PA)

A fairly large crowd of several thousand pilgrims and tourists has gathered in St Peter’s Square this morning, many of them with their eyes fixed on the tiny chimney in the corner, beside the facade of the basilica.

The mood is upbeat despite the wet and the cold – not the kind of weather many were expecting of Rome. But this could be a time when all expectations are scuppered and a Successor of Peter is elected whom few observers had been predicting.

Indeed, the longer this conclave lasts (as of writing, three votes but no election) the more likely it is that those considered to be front-runners will not be elected and the cardinals will decide on someone “below the radar”. Such is the way of this election that if a candidate continues to near but not quite reach the two thirds majority needed, his votes will likely transfer to those who have been polling less, who then gather momentum.

Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI at the equivalent of this afternoon’s first vote, around 5.30pm, but his election was relatively quick. Most observers are expecting a pope to be elected some time tomorrow, possibly at the seventh vote, which would be noon tomorrow. But of course no one really knows.

For many in St Peter’s Square, expectations are wide and varied. “It will take several days to choose,” believes Gabriele, 23, from Modena, Italy. “I think it will be [Cardinal Sean] O’Malley from Boston. He gives the impression of a simple person and he fought against [clerical sex] abuse.”

Jean Pierre, 55, from Bordeaux in France, is hoping for an African pope, and thinks the cardinal electors will fulfil that hope. “I think it will bring peace,” he says. “That’s all.”

Fr Andy Moore, 40, from Houston, Texas, is under no illusion how great are the challenges confronting the next pope. “There is a lot facing [him],” he says. “Evangelisation, the sex abuse crisis – I just pray he has the spirit of Christ in his heart. That is what matters.”

Alfredo, also from Texas, says: “We will need a really strong pope. Whoever the Holy Spirit sends… but a pope from the Americas would be really wonderful too.”

Many of those in St Peter’s Square just happened to be in Rome when the conclave began. “We were studying in London – we planned this trip weeks ago, and it just turned out that there was the conclave,” says Nicholas from Detroit. “I would not be surprised if we have the first African pope. An American pope would be cool, but I think it is more likely to be an African or South American.”

He also believes the sex abuse scandal “is going to be dealt with one way or another [whoever the next pope is].”

Ian, 50, from Yorkshire, said: “I’m Catholic, not really a good practising one. I know there are three main candidates. Not really sure what to think about it. It’d be good to have a pope from Africa though.”

Media almost outnumber the general public here, with nearly 6,000 accredited to cover the event. Among them is the respected blogger and Catholic Herald contributor, Fr John Zuhlsdorf. “I’m anxious but hopeful,” he told me, “anxious about there being a break with the line of continuity that the Holy Father introduced, especially into our liturgical worship which is the foundation for any effective and successful project of promoting the New Evangelisation.”

But he added he was “hopeful that the new pope will be fearless and vigorous in word and deed and in giving an example of the love of Christ that will inspire others to seek Him, or desire to know Him better, and will undertake the extremely difficult task of governing with firm charity”.

After the black smoke at noon today, some of the crowd are dispersing, but many will remain. This is a chance to witness a piece of history first hand and yet everyone is being kept in suspense, waiting for the Holy Spirit to give the signal.

“I feel like a child on Christmas eve waiting eagerly for Christmas to begin,” says Brother Cassian Koenemann, a Benedictine monk from St Louis studying in Rome, “with the only difference being that I don’t know when the big event will begin.”