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A steady drizzle fell on the packed crowd in St. Peter’s Square, raindrops bouncing off a sea of umbrellas, as Jordyn Faile turned her gaze upwards in search of white smoke.
The third-year University of South Carolina Lancaster student, only hours away from the end of a week-long class trip through Italy, had been waiting patiently March 13 outside the Vatican in Rome for any signs that the Catholic Church’s 266th pope had been chosen.
Within minutes, a stream of white smoke began billowing from a skinny chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, causing the crowd around her to erupt in cheers, song and applause.
“It was pure excitement. Everyone was yelling and jumping. I don’t know, it’s kinda indescribable,” Faile said.
She and her classmates, who were standing nearby, scanned the crowd in amazement.
“There was barely any moving room. I read somewhere there were 100,000 people packed into that one square. There were flags from all different countries that people were flying everywhere,” she said. “After it happened, all these nuns just started running full speed into the square.”
Faile, 20, had been in Italy for seven days, sightseeing along with the 12 other members of her USCL “Shakespeare and Italy” class and her instructor, Dr. Dana Lawrence. The class had already traveled through Venice, Verona, San Gimignano, Florence and Assisi before making their final stop in Rome.
Along the way, the group saw many great sights, including Romeo and Juliet’s balcony and a trip through the Colosseum, though Faile said they saved the best for last.
“We were so excited. It was perfect timing,” Faile said. “It was amazing and it could not have ended any better. It was the perfect ending to our trip.”
The papal conclave, a meeting of the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals called to vote for a new pope, began on Tuesday, March 12, the class’ first day in Rome, though Faile said her group didn’t expect to see anything of note.
Her class had already visited the square earlier in the trip, but only saw black smoke emanate from the chapel’s chimney, which meant the 115 voting cardinals had not yet elected a new pope. By tradition, a plume of white smoke means a new pope has been chosen.
Hoping to witness history, most of the group returned to the large plaza at 5:30 p.m. March 13, turned their eyes skyward and waited. An hour and a half later, they were pleasantly surprised.
“We were standing there watching the chimney and all of a sudden everyone starts pointing at the smoke. My classmate, Hannah Morgan, started yelling ‘Jordyn, it’s white!’ and I looked up and saw it,” she said. “I was so excited because it was just an amazing part of history. I fully expected it to be black because it was only two days in.”
Faile watched as the crowd screamed in excitement.
“One of my friends compared it to in America when people are waiting for the ball to drop on New Year’s Eve,” she said. “There was also a huge bell in the building and as the white smoke came out, the bell started ringing out. It made the experience even more awesome.”
The smoke seen round the world
Faile’s instructor, Lawrence, recounted how she and a few of the students had split off from the group to visit another nearby square, but returned to St. Peter’s Square just in time.
“The smoke happened about two minutes after we got back. Talk about good timing,” Lawrence said. “That was pretty sweet. The whole time we were saying ‘they’re not going to decide while we’re here.’”
Soon, they learned who had been elected, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who chose the name Pope Francis.
“The crowd’s reaction was most interesting. I couldn’t imagine anything like that happening in the U.S. with a religious figure,” she said. “It was like a rock concert. We were right outside Vatican City and they opened the gate and let people in. People started screaming and waving flags from different countries.”
Dr. Amber Williams, one of Faile’s classmates on the trip and an instructor in USCL’s nursing program, remembered a sense of anticipation had swept the crowd moments before the smoke appeared.
“There was a priest beside us from South Africa and he said he didn’t want to leave because this was a part of history,” Williams said. “I knew there was no way I’d miss a part of history either.”
After a few moments of complete silence, white smoke began pouring from the roof and Williams immediately pulled out her iPhone to film the crowd’s reaction. The short video shows the densely packed crowd holding their umbrellas and screaming for joy.
“The smoke came and the crowd erupted. There were priests and nuns running to the square. There was a group of nuns singing next to us and a group of children on the other side of us, it was all really neat,” she said.
Unfortunately the group’s tour bus arrived before they could see Pope Francis address the crowd.
“We got to see all these bands marching in and we waited to see him, but then our tour bus was about to leave us, so we had to go,” Faile said.
Within hours, the class was sitting on a 3:30 a.m. flight back to the United States, talking about the experience.
Days after returning from her trip of a lifetime, and a day before Pope Francis was officially inaugurated as the new pontiff on Tuesday, March 19, Faile scrolled through the digital copies of at least 1,000 photos she snapped during her trip.
From unique angles of the billowing smoke to group photos in front of the massive video screens that lined St. Peter’s Square, Faile said there’s plenty to remember.
“It’s a trip that I’m definitely going to remember for years and I’ll be sharing the story of the white smoke for years and years to come,” she said. “It’s definitely one of my best memories.”
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416