March 9, 2013 at 6:57 AM ET
By Caroline Mackenzie Gottlieb, Weekend TODAY
“The election of a new pope is like nothing else in the world. You are about to bear witness to history. Make sure you don’t miss it.”
That was my history professor at the American University in Rome. It was April 2005, and I was a junior in college, studying abroad.
Weeks earlier I had received an email indicating all was not well in Vatican City: “The Audience that you had signed up for this Wednesday (Feb. 23) has been canceled due to the health issues of the pope.” Pope John Paul II was struggling to recover from the flu. Speculation, shared in guilty whispers, ripped through the ancient city: “Is this it? How sick is he?”
Very sick, it turned out. At the end of March, the pope went into septic shock. As word spread of his declining health, I joined other Romans drawn to Saint Peter’s Square, beginning what would become a regular commute of sorts.
At first glance, it looked like a typical afternoon at Saint Peter’s. But as the sun began to set that Friday, people gathered around the Egyptian obelisk at the center of the square and started to pray. News cameras appeared on the border.
Cameras, eyes – everyone stayed up late monitoring the papal apartments, looking for a signal, trying to decipher the lights turning on and off.
The next night, the news broke: Pope John Paul II had passed away. Instead of going out to dinner, I headed to Saint Peter’s Square. My friends and I went by foot (or by heels, in my case) sprinting alongside the Tiber River, unsure whether the buses would be running.
The blisters I got from this mile-long race would last for weeks, but the pain was worth it: When we stepped into the square that night, the small crowd that had gathered just a day earlier had grown into an overwhelming mass of a quarter million people.
This was before texting, before Twitter or news apps. I knew the pope had died, but the tens of thousands gathered in the square did not.
Wanting to document the moment, I guiltily pulled out my primitive point-and-shoot, erased a number of photos to free up some memory, switched it to video, and pressed record.
I caught 15 seconds before I ran out of memory. The shaky female voice, the brilliantly lit square, the somber faces – it still gives me chills. Shortly after I recorded my video, the crowd was finally told that the pope had passed away.
Days later, I awoke in the dark. It was the first morning of the Rite of Visitation, when you could view the pope’s body. We entered a line of sleepy Romans and slowly made our way to Saint Peter’s Square. As we moved along, the sky went from black to a brilliant pink until it finally resumed its regular Roman hue – a rich blue.
We crossed through the rarely opened center door and were overwhelmed by the brilliantly lit ceiling. Then I put my camera away.
Filled with dignitaries, Saint Peter’s was off-limits for the funeral. So we headed to a nearby park and watched the funeral on Jumbotrons, joining the countless pilgrims who had descended on my city-away-from-home. Even then there were signs declaring “Santo Subito!”: Make him a saint. John Paul’s successor had shoes near-impossible to fill.
The conclave would determine the successor. One hundred seventeen cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel to cast their ballots. Three votes came and went – black smoke pouring out of the chimney each time.
It wasn’t white smoke that tipped me off to their final decision. It was the bells: the sudden outburst of pealing from the churches surrounding my school as I left an afternoon class. We knew it meant one thing: A new pope had finally been elected.
We knew we didn’t have much time - about half an hour or so between the white smoke and when the new pope would be revealed. So once again, I found myself sprinting towards St. Peter’s – this time in better footwear. Down the Gianacolo hill I went, joining a river of people flooding towards the square.
Once somber, Saint Peter’s was now electric with excitement.
In what I believe was an omen for my future career in broadcast news, I ended up standing next to a Vatican official and a writer for an American Catholic magazine – one translating, the other providing analysis. I had my own personal pundits.
The tall glass windows of Saint Peter’s soon opened and started to fill with tiny red figures – the cardinals ready to announce their decision.
Then, from behind a red curtain, Cardinal Ratzinger, the new Pope Benedict XVI, stepped out. He clasped his hands together, humbly gesturing to the crowd, which roared its welcome.
Eight years later, the cardinals have again returned to Rome to cast their ballots and elect the new pope. While it’s under vastly different circumstances – a pope retiring, not dying – I imagine the buzz in Saint Peter’s Square will be no different. And somewhere in Rome there will be a young American girl, swept up in the tradition, and making her own sprint to Saint Peter’s.
Caroline Mackenize Gottlieb is a producer for Weekend TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineGNBC