Papa Francesco

Now that TIME magazine has named Pope Francis its person of the year, it’s official: I’m not the only one with a little crush on Il Papa. So it’s time to tell the story of the night I fell for him.

I happened to be in Benano with my good friend Aileen when the Papal Conclave began. Aileen, good Jewish girl that she is, was enraptured by the papal election. Having studied the process fervently, she determined that we should watch the first vote from the comfort of Rocca di Benano and go to Rome the following day.

I loved watching the papal election from Benano because I had watched the U.S. election returns from that same position just four months earlier. There were differences, of course — take, for example, that instead of results being conveyed from local Boards of Elections to a TV studio with fancy touch-screen graphics, smoke signals from the chimney atop the Sistene Chapel — and the helpful Chimney Cam — transmitted the news.

And so it was that we went to Rome on the second day of the Conclave. As luck would have it, our friend and favorite photographer Gianni Fantauzzi went, too. You’ll understand if I let his photographs do most of the talking. We realized later that we were pretty close to each other in the Square that night, and he is graciously allowing me to use his photos of what we saw.

We took an early train to Rome and walked the couple of miles from the apartment of our dear and very hospitable friends John and Karin to St. Peter’s Square. It was a cold morning, and the precipitation varied between a drizzle and a light rain. The sky was grey. And it was cold. We arrived just after a brilliant display of black smoke (signaling that the cardinals had failed again to elect a pope), so the Square was empty except for the journalists still finishing up their reporting.

We had time to kill, so we started by wandering the Square and getting a sense of Vatican City during a Conclave. There were trinkets to be had, and I wasn’t alone in snapping up a few Pope Benedict tchotchkes.

Late in the wet, cold afternoon, we returned to St. Peter’s Square to begin our wait. With thousands of our new best friends, we settled in as the drizzly evening descended.

At least the people-watching was unbeatable.

One of the miracles of the evening was that John and Karin found us in the crowd when they arrived after their workday.

Throughout the evening, the crowd’s hum seemed ebullient, prayerful, excited, and respectful — all at the same time. Suddenly, the volume of the hum increased, and within seconds, that hum crescendoed into a full-throated roar. This was IT! The election results were being announced.

Amid the commotion, I found the chimney in the distance. It was, indeed, spewing smoke … of an indeterminate color. It finally became clearly white smoke — billows and billows of bright white smoke. At the same time, the huge bells on the left side of St. Peter’s rolled back and forth and rang out joyously. Maybe the bells aren’t inherently joyous, but the crowd certainly was.

There were lots of “Viva il Papa!!” cries, which struck me as kind of strange because no one knew exactly what we were celebrating — just that the Cardinals had elected someone as pope.

Then began another very long wait interrupted briefly by a marching band (does the Pope get his own theme song?) and Swiss Guards parading across the piazza in formation.

When the upper floor of St. Peter’s exploded in bright light, the crowd went wild. We cheered excitedly whenever a curtain on the door to the balcony as much as fluttered, so when the doors opened wide and the cardinal came out to announce the Habemus Papam (we have a Pope), the crowd went berserk.

But that was nothing compared to the exultation that erupted when the new Pope stepped onto the white-light balcony. We cheered throughout his brief address — for his humble presence, for his request for our prayers for his work, and finally for his warm goodnight and “good dinner.” I didn’t get it all, but I caught the gist of it (my Italian is good for gists, but not details.) I loved that he spoke in slow and beautifully clear  Italian. The crowd was hanging onto his every word, too — and certainly for reasons more profound than his lovely diction.

We wanted to stop on our way back to the apartment at a favorite restaurant. Oddly, it was the only one we saw with a line coming out the door. Aha!! The name of the restaurant is “da Francesco.” Folks were lining up raise a fork of pasta in honor of Papa Francesco long before yesterday’s announcement by TIME.