The color of the smoke was debatable. It didn't look quite white enough as it whirled from the Sistine Chapel into the early evening. In St. Peter's Square, you could even hear a few arguments over its color. It hadn't even been 48 hours since the Conclave began. It clearly seemed too soon for the emergence of a new pope.
But the bells that rang with the smoke were the giveaway. The more they chimed, the more clear it became that the smoke was not dark. Tens of thousands of people cheered, waved flags, and multiplied in the square as word spread that a new pope had been chosen.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's basilica and waved. He had served Pope John Paul II as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Now he was Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th pope and first German pope in centuries.
"Viva il papa!" cheered the crowd. "Long live the pope!"
Some were pilgrims. Some were Italians. Some were devout Catholics who had waited in long lines to see the body of Pope John Paul II or slept overnight to ensure a good spot for his funeral. Some missed the funeral but wanted to be here for this brighter piece of history. Many were Roman secularists who believed in birth control and sex outside of marriage, and rejected the idea of heaven after death. But the mystique of the Vatican drew them by the thousands.
Don't put Patrick Baron in the secular column. He's a junior at Chrtistiandom College in Virginia. He's thrilled to be studying abroad in Rome for the semester. There couldn't be a better time for him to be studying in Rome. He's cut all classes this week. He had been outside waiting since the Conclave began. "I was here for the first smoke yesterday," he said. "And I had to come back today."
Baron couldn't contain his emotion when he saw Ratzinger appear on the balcony of the basilica. "He's a real traditionalist," said Baron. "I was so happy to see him. I believe the church will never change its teaching. Cardinal Ratzinger reflects that. He is a very holy man. His virtual holiness and charisma will draw people back to the church and they will see the beauty in our old traditions."
It's easy to find young American Catholics in Rome cheering this moment and calling for a more orthodox and conservative church. But St. Peter's Square is not the world. Amid the flag wavers, singers and dancers, some of the most ardent Catholics admitted that Ratzinger's traditionalism is allergic to the values of young Catholics.
"I'm not sure it was the wisest choice to win over younger Catholics," said Miles Cuneo, a junior study-abroad student from George Washington University. "But he was close to John Paul. That will help since he was popular among our generation even when we disagreed with some of his views. We'll see."
Ratzinger may be a pope whose orthodoxy is appreciated by traditionalists like Barron but is unlikely to appeal to Western Catholics. "I don't think this is a good choice now, given that young people are becoming less Catholic," says Maureen Audetto, a French-Italian junior at American University of Rome.
Ratzinger's conservatism has even been divisive in his native Germany. A poll for Der Spiegel newsweekly found that opposition among Germans to Ratzinger becoming pope outnumbered supporters 36 to 29.
Roland Gray is a gardener from Stuttgard, Germany. He and his wife, Fraeda, are on holiday in Rome. They were in a restaurant when a waitress heard their German accent and told him about Ratzinger. They aren't Catholic but they rushed to the square to be part of the excitement. "He's too conservative for me," Fraeda said. "But maybe good for the Catholic Church because they are more conservative."
American Catholics will be watching Ratzinger closely at a time when the church's credibility has also been damaged by sex abuse scandals. "It will be interesting to see how he responds to it," said Father David Engo, a priest from Long Island, N.Y. "I think he has to get a handle on the formation of new priests and making sure they are men who are entrenched and secure in their faith."
In choosing Ratzinger, the cardinals selected a man who is not from the developing parts of the world where the religion is growing fastest, such as Africa, Latin America and Asia. That led to some of the sharpest criticism. "He should have been African or Latin American," said Carlo Prulli, an Italian real estate manager. "They didn't have the courage to do it, though."
Robert Mogapi Mphiwe, 33, a black South African priest, didn't hide his disappointment. "I would have loved to have had an African pope or a Latin American pope," he said. "I didn't expect him to come from Europe. But I am glad we have a pope. We need to deal with the issues of race and culture in the Catholic Church."