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Initial uncertainty followed by an outburst of joy in Vatican City

VATICAN CITY—When white smoke came billowing out of the Sistine Chapel chimney Tuesday afternoon, people sprinted into St. Peter's Square from every direction.

"Papa, papa, papa," they yelled.

But there'd been two previous false alarms: Smoke that looked white but turned out to be black.

"White or black?" you could hear people asking. "What color?"

Suddenly, the basilica's large bells started to chime. It was a new signal ordered by Pope John Paul II when he rewrote conclave rules in 1996, and it did the trick. The crowd began to cheer, building to a crescendo until they drowned out the bells.

It was a celebratory atmosphere; it felt like a sporting event. Thanks to cheap air travel, the crowd was far more international than the mostly Italian group that had assembled after 20th-century papal conclaves. Flags from every continent abounded.

As people poured in from every opening in the square, they chattered excitedly. A woman in a bright blue scarf hugged a friend to stop her from bouncing and shouted into her ear: "What do you think, piccolo or grande?" She was referring to the three sets of papal garments that had been made to accommodate a pope of any size.

Someone in St. Peter's Basilica parted the white curtains at the center window just long enough to peek out at a crowd that had squeezed toward the steps, yet still stretched onto nearby roads, 100,000 strong and growing.

The curtains were parted further, and Cardinal Medina Estevez of Chile stepped onto the basilica's balcony. The air seemed to crackle with electric anticipation. He held a stern visage.

"Dear brothers and sisters," he said in four languages: Italian, German, Spanish and English. "Habemus papam!" We have a new pope!

After Pope Benedict XVI emerged and addressed the crowd, the reaction was predictably mixed.

"He's a good man, a conservative traditionalist—just what the church needs right now," said Ugo Melillo, 72, a Vatican bureaucrat who stood in St. Peter's Square with the masses after the announcement.

Marieloa Luciani, 38, wasn't so sure: "I have been praying for someone a little bit younger, maybe a bit more popular. This just looks like in-house lobbying or politics."

Giovanni Kessler, an Italian member of Parliament from Trent, said: "He's for sure a great person of culture and faith, but I think this wasn't a courageous decision. It was a defensive choice."

Not so, said the Rev. Timothy MacDonald, 30, of Flint, Mich., whom Ratzinger ordained as a deacon at St. Peter's in 1999.

"It's going to be a very difficult thing for Americans to accept," he said. "But they don't know him. When they read his own words, they'll believe."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POPE

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