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A funny thing happened on the way to the Vatican

  • 18 March 2013

I'd just finished teaching for the day, at the Gregorian University where I'm a visiting professor, when I heard the news. The first clue was the bells: as the white smoke goes up, the bells at St Peter's start ringing and, through a centuries-old tradition, the tolling cascades from one belfry to the next. It took a full two minutes for the bells of the churches near the Gregorian to ring. A tweet would have been quicker, but not as poetic.

At that moment a Polish nun in full habit ran past me shouting fermata bianca, fermata bianca. Sister was excited. And suddenly so was I. These last days have seen this extraordinary Catholic theatre: where 115 men talk to the world via a chimney. It was time for the 'big reveal'. I now know where reality TV gets this stuff.

There are moments in your life when the effort is worth it. St Peter's is a good 25 minutes walk from where I am living. It was cold and drizzling. I could have watched it all on TV. But sometimes you just have to be there.

Every road led to the Vatican. Even what passes for Roman road rules were in suspension. I'm not sure I've ever  felt such a group buzz before. At the Square, 100,000 gathered to see history. Being a single traveller has its advantages: I got a great spot in front of the left-hand Bernini fountain. It's a prime spot for the huge screen.

You might think that up-close in the Square would be best. But wherever you are, when the human beings emerge on that balcony you realise how far away it is. It should be no surprise that as a cinema scholar I thanked God for the big screen! But, the Oscar goes to ... the Square's sound designer. Modern acoustics meets a Renaissance masterpiece. Every word perfectly surrounded Bernini's columns.

At 8.06pm the lights went on in the balcony loggia and the crowd went wild. It took another nine minutes for a Cardinal to appear and tell us that Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected Pope Francis I.

Jorge who? I was the only one nearby who knew his name and that he was a Jesuit. In fact I'd been on a panel on Ireland's RTE radio last