White Smoke: Experiencing Pope Francis’s Inaugural Mass Firsthand

by Sydney Kahl / Aug 19, 2013 / 0 comments

Upon scheduling a month’s stay in Rome over a year ago, we had no way of knowing the excitement of selecting a new pope would be part of our trip. We waited anxiously along with Catholics from around the world to see when the black smoke being emitted from the Sistine Chapel would change to white. This is what signified a new pope had been selected. Black smoke meant no decision, white smoke meant a decision had been reached.


During my mother’s presentation as a visiting professor researching volcanoes on potential dangers of the next volcanic eruption in Italy at John Cabot University, bells began ringing from churches around the city, interrupting her talk. “A new pope has been chosen,” a university student in the lecture hall announced as she checked her phone, “but no name has been released yet.” An archaeologist in the room joked, “You’re talking about volcanic smoke just as smoke is being released from the Vatican.”  Everyone in the crowd laughed at the joke. We later read that some women released pink smoke in St. Peters Square earlier that day, in protest that women should have more power in the church.  


We learned shortly, thanks to social media and the internet, that Pope Francis from Argentina was succeeding the outgoing Pope Benedict. This is the first time a pope had chosen the name Francis, which is symbolic and indicates that he will be a new kind of pope, as many popes routinely choose names that have previously been used - and focused on previous beliefs. Pope Francis, however, was taking a different stance than other popes. St. Francis was the patron saint of children, the poor, and animals, and he is associated with a love of nature. Pope Francis even mentioned the importance of environmental protection in his first weeks in the position. This was a new issue for a pope to address. Being a family of environmentalists, we are happy to see this change. If the pope advocates for environmental awareness, then more people will pay attention to this critical issue.


One week after being selected, the new pope scheduled his inaugural mass. We were within walking distance, and knew we couldn’t miss this event - even after some other international visitors who we chatted with said anyone who thought about going was crazy. St. Peters Square would be packed with hundreds of thousands of people. We decided to risk the crowds and set out several hours early, as we were not sure what to expect. We knew this wasn’t like any other morning of our time in Rome, as we heard helicopters flying overhead before we even left our apartment.  


The Vatican - Pope Francis' inaugural Mass


As we headed toward the Tiber River, the most direct route to the Vatican from our neighborhood, we encountered yellow flagging tape along the sidewalks directing pedestrians to stay out of the streets. As the crowd filed into the designated areas, silence reigned. Everyone seemed serious. We decided not to talk either, since everyone else was Catholic and seemed as if they were silent for a reason. As we neared the Vatican, we saw groups of uniformed security officials of all kinds, including Carabinieri patrolling the area - in police cars, on motorcycles, bikes, and even in boats in the Tiber River.


The Tiber - Pope Francis' inaugural Mass


The Carabinieri - Pope Francis' inaugural Mass


I also had never seen so many men and women dressed in religious clothing - long robes, mostly black but some white, trekking along the streets with us. One nun in front of us caught my eye, as she had a colorful Italian flag covering her shoulders, draped over her habit. Even the colorful Swiss Vatican guards in their red, gold, and blue uniforms were on display. We tried talking to some of these people to get their perspective on the entire situation, but it was difficult to communicate with these people as none of us spoke the same language.


Swiss Vatican guards at Pope Francis' Inaugural Mass

When we arrived, St. Peter’s Square and the road leading up to it were nearly full of people, even though we were several hours early. To enter the Square, we had to go through a security screening. We were given a keepsake program of the mass in Italian. There were large cinema-size screens set up throughout the square, so everyone could see the proceedings. People proudly held flags of countries from around the world and banners with various wishes. This was the most international event I had ever attended - and unlike the Olympics, there was just one star.


At Pope Francis' Inaugural Mass


At Pope Francis' Inaugural Mass

Everyone clapped when the pope appeared. He was travelling in a vehicle, which was more like a cart than a car. It looked like the pope mobile, but there was no protective window shielding him. He travelled slowly through aisles created by temporary gates set up to hold back the crowds. I was not tall enough to see over the crowd, but I could tell when he came close, because flags waved, cheers erupted, and cameras, IPads and smartphones went up in the air trying to capture a picture of the pope. A video played on the screens, so the entire crowd could see his journey around the square.


At Pope Francis' Inaugural Address


At Pope Francis' Inaugural Address

Pope Francis’s humbleness and genuine kindness came out when his cart stopped and someone handed him a baby to kiss. Everyone in the square cheered. Next, he stopped and held a disabled man. Pope Francis was dressed in simple white attire, which may seem insignificant, but this is not the norm for Popes. Usually they are dressed ornately, in robes of state. We hadn’t heard him speak yet (and we wouldn’t understand his words in Italian anyway), but we were moved. Once the pope circled through the crowd sufficiently, all the cardinals (dressed in gold robes and head pieces) marched through the square, yet Pope Francis remained in white attire. The word was that when offered an ermine-lined cape, he refused, commenting that carnival had ended last week.  


What was most surprising about the service was the silence of the crowd once the mass began.  Everyone seemed to focus on watching the ceremony with respect, as if they were in an outdoor church.  


We stayed through much of the service but we wanted to exit before the rest of the crowd, so we left early. Coming from a rural town of 6,000, the event was a bit overwhelming, but one I will never forget. There had been talk leading up to the selection of a new pope on the need to choose someone charismatic who could connect with and inspire the world’s Catholics. I am not Catholic, but I will never forget my first impressions of the new pope.





Sydney Kahl is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program


All photos courtesy and copyright Sydney Kahl