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Rome and the Election of Pope Francis


Last week I went on a work trip to Rome, my first visit in nearly 20 years, for one night only. So imagine my surprise to find myself there, totally by coincidence, the same night that a new Pope was elected…

Of course I knew that it was a possibility, but I figured that it was pretty likely that I would miss the event itself due to being at the office, and that it would be enough, perhaps, just to visit Saint Peter’s Square and see the pilgrims and the curious waiting for that magic puff of white smoke.

After I finished my day’s work and was dropped off next to the Forum, I snapped a few shots and then checked into my hotel before a look round the old quarter.

Statue of Julius Caesar and Santi Luca e Martina, Roman Forum

Statue of Julius Caesar and Santi Luca e Martina, Roman Forum

I took my new mini tripod out with me, and had the smaller Lumix LX7 in place of my normal Canon 7D, it being a work trip. It was raining and I got some nice shots of the Pantheon and the Piazza della Rotonda in the rain.

The Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda, Centro Storico, Rome

The Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda, Centro Storico, Rome

Then, as I meandered around in the area of the Piazza Navona, bells began to ring, and, sensing something might be amiss, I started walking in the direction of the Vatican, 1km away and on the other side of the Tiber. As I walked, a quick check of Twitter confirmed that white smoke had indeed been sighted, indicating that the Cardinals had selected a new Pope after several rounds of voting.

Learning this, I hurried through the back alleys of the Centro Storico towards the Tiber. Once out onto the riverbank, the evening rush hour traffic was besieged with pedestrians crossing haphazardly across towards the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel II, which was blocked to vehicle traffic and was now full of Romans, tourists and pilgrims walk-running across to the Borgo Santo Spirito, the wide avenue leading to Saint Peter’s Square and the Vatican. There was a palpable sense of excitement and urgency, as all knew the square would fill quickly now that the word was out.

Romans rush to Saint Peter's Square

Romans rush to Saint Peter’s Square

I entered the square, where tens of thousands were already present, a sea of umbrellas interspersed with roving camera crews interviewing anyone they could find to fill airtime while they awaited the coming announcement. I managed to make it inside the main crowd barrier, undergoing a cursory bag and body check, and then I was in, amongst the faithful and the merely curious (I definitely fall into the latter category).

Worldwide media in Saint Peter's Square

Worldwide media in Saint Peter’s Square

Then the waiting began. I tried to fill the time with taking pictures of the Swiss Guards on ceremonial manoeuvres, and by putting my LX7 on the tripod, held in aloft in my head to get overhead pictures of the crowd. Typically for being in the middle of a historical event in the 21st century, everyone was in possession of a mobile phone and/or camera, and of course this meant that the 3G network folded. I tried in vain to share a photo or two with the folks back home.

Romans await the announcement of the election of Pope Francis

Romans await the announcement of the election of Pope Francis

The Crowd Awaits the Announcement

The Crowd Awaits the Announcement

Soon enough, the balcony lit up, the red curtains parted, and French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran made the formal announcement we had all been waiting for: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum… habemus papam!” – “I announce to you a great joy… we have a pope!” The new Pope was announced as being Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, a Jesuit, who would be the first pope to take the name Francisco (Francis). This thrilled the crowd as not only was he the first Jesuit, the first South American, and the first Pope Francis, but he shared the name Francisco with the current star of the Roma football team – surely a good omen. Some Argentineans nearby waved their flag around like they had just won a football match.

One of the things that struck me that night in the Vatican was that when the announcement was made, and when the new Pope appeared for the first time, a sea of camera screens appeared in the audience: it seemed virtually everyone (myself included) was recording the event despite the TV cameras and press doing a much better job of it. Charlie Brooker was right, we have turned into a world of passive recorders, drones with phones. I realised that this would not have been the case in 2005 – as digital cameras were not nearly as pervasive – and the iPhone had not yet been released.

Habemas Papam

Habemas Papam

After a time, the papal rug was hung over the balcony, the Cardinals appeared along the side balconies, and the red curtains parted again to reveal the new Pope Francis. He waited a while for the crowd’s raucous applause to die down, and then began simply “Brothers and sisters… good evening!” He was disarmingly humble, and the crowd ate his words up, rapt with attention.

Pope Francis makes his first public appearance, Saint Peter's Sq

Pope Francis makes his first public appearance, Saint Peter’s Sq

Catholic Priest listens to the first address of Pope Francis

Catholic Priest listens to the first address of Pope Francis

When his address was concluding, I was mindful of a dinner commitment with a colleague that I was almost certain to be late for, and I knew that this square would take a while to empty, so I moved towards the edges. Soon enough everyone had the same idea and the sheer number of people trying to get out of the north side of the square through the colonnades turned into a somewhat dangerous crush, as the barricades were rammed on the other side with latecomers who hadn’t managed to get in, and the guards were slow to open the gates.

Latecomers held back behind the barricades

Latecomers held back behind the barricades

After a hair-raising 10-15 minutes we managed to squeeze out of the gates and into the street, where I saw two groups of nuns from the same order bound up to each other and, squealing like schoolgirls, proceed to jump on each other and group-hug. Pretty sure I will never see that happen again.

Returning to the main avenue, a stream of people left Saint Peter’s the way they had came, nuns and all.

Saint Peter's Square empties after the announcement

Saint Peter’s Square empties after the announcement

Three nuns, Via San Pio X, the Vatican

Three nuns, Via San Pio X, the Vatican

Although I am not religious, I felt incredibly fortunate that the first night I happened to be in Rome in 20 years coincided with the historic announcement of the new Pope. It’s not often you get this sort of chance to see history in the making, up close, and it’s humbling when you think of the relatively tiny number of people in the history of the Catholic Church who have actually been present to witness these announcements.

I only wish I had brought my big camera. The LX7 is a great little camera but no match for a proper DSLR with a good lens on it.

If you’ve made it down here this far, I will “reward” you with my own compilation of amateurish home video from the night:

The next morning I had an hour or so to look around the Centro Storico again before going to work, so I checked out the Pantheon again, before heading back to the Forum and the Colisseum. This short taster definitely whetted my appetite to return to Rome armed with more time, a proper camera, and my trusty travel companion and soon-to-be wife.

Rotunda of the Pantheon

Rotunda of the Pantheon

The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill

The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill

The Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine

The Colisseum of Rome, East Side

The Colisseum of Rome, East Side

Of course, as usual you may find more photos from this set over on Flickr.

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  1. December 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm

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