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  • John Thavis


The first Jesuit pope. The first Latin American pope. The first pope to choose the name Francis.

And already there are signs that he will find a new way of being pope. Asking for the people’s prayers for God’s blessing before delivering your own, for example, was a pretty eloquent act of humility.

Within minutes, the Vatican had announced that Pope Francis’ first major audience will be on Saturday, when he meets the more than 5,000 journalists covering his election.

I was part of the live ABC News panel this evening watching it all unfold, perched above St. Peter’s Square. Diane Sawyer anchored, with fellow commentators Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Terry Moran and Cokie Roberts.

When we heard the name “Bergoglio” in the “Habemus Papam” announcement, we all did a double-take. As I wrote here two days ago, I had heard Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s name increasingly mentioned by some well-informed people, so he was high on my short list. But his election on the second day of the conclave surprised me. It meant he was not a compromise candidate the cardinals turned to after voting stalled on front-runners, but the first choice of many going into the conclave.

His simple lifestyle as archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is well-known — he doesn’t live in a mansion but in a simple apartment, he doesn’t have a driver but takes the bus, he even cooks his own meals.

As a communicator, he’s no superstar speech-giver, and we saw that in his low-key appearance on the balcony tonight. Look for him to communicate through gestures, prayers and decisions. Simplicity will be key. Some of his first decisions will be the most interesting: who he chooses as his top officials at the Vatican, and whether he moves toward some of the reforms called for by cardinals over the last few weeks.

He’ll also outline some of his plans, including travel plans, we assume. If he goes to Brazil for World Youth Day next July, don’t be surprised to see him add a stop in Argentina.

As the cardinals walk toward the Sistine Chapel to vote for a new pope, they pass through the Sala Regia, literally the “royal room” where popes once received emperors, kings and princes.

The room is one of the most ornate in the Vatican, and its art works illustrate the church’s temporal influence through the centuries. If the cardinals glance at the frescoes, they have to be thinking: How times have changed.

The paintings celebrate the pope as a worldly power. Kings are depicted presenting territories to ruling pontiffs, while the “Donation of Charlemagne” commemorates the medieval gift that launched the papal states.

Today, of course, the pope’s territorial holdings have shrunk to the 110-acre Vatican city state. His worldly power is limited to moral pronouncements that may, or may not, be taken to heart.

And now we have a pope who has willingly set aside the office of the papacy – a gesture reflecting the human limitations on a pope, and the need to adapt this age-old institution to the demands of the modern world.

I wonder if we’ll ever see a Vatican hallway decorated with less-than-triumphal scenes from the modern papacy. A pope who resigns. A pope who meets with sex abuse victims. A pope who apologizes to groups the church may have offended in the past.

They could call it the “Hall of Humility.” It could be a project for the next pope.

After two rounds of black smoke, what does it mean?

First, it’s no surprise. After a month of evaluating papal contenders, the common wisdom in Rome was that no one entered the conclave so heavily favored that he would sweep to a two-thirds majority in three ballots.

Second, it sets the stage for the crucial two ballots on Wednesday afternoon. Here is where a leading vote-getter either puts distance between himself and the rest of the pack, or stalls short of the necessary 77 votes.

White smoke this evening would lead many people to expect one of three men to appear at the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica: Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer or Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

Another puff of black smoke would not remove these three contenders from papabile lists, but it would appear to indicate some reluctance among the cardinals in forming a consensus around any one of them.

If Thursday does not produce a pope, the chance of a surprise is even greater.

Pope Benedict watching

The ex-Pope Benedict, like the rest of the world, is following the conclave proceedings from the outside. He watched TV coverage of the first black smoke last night, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who had spoken with Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein.

Benedict is at the papal villa at Castelgandolfo, 17 miles away from Rome. Vatican officials the retired pope won’t receive any special alert when a new pope is elected.

Today the Vatican said the ex-pope was not expected to attend the inauguration Mass of the new pontiff. That seems to confirm the impression that Benedict really plans to be “invisible” to the world.

Smoke signal recipe revealed

Today, to the applause of reporters, the Vatican spokesman actually revealed the chemical composition of the canisters used to create the black and white smoke.

The high-tech section of the two-part stove burns a “black” or “white” canister that fires five chemical doses over a seven-minute period.

For black smoke the composition is potassium perchlorate, anthracene and sulpher. The recipe for white smoke is potassium chlorate, lactose and rosin (a natural amber resin made from conifers.)

So far the system has worked pretty well, better than other years. The black smoke last night looked like an inky eruption. The smoke at midday today was dark grey to black, certainly not white.

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