HUNDREDS of thousands of elated Catholics greeted the first South American pope with tumultuous cheers, waving flags and applause when Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared on the veranda at St Peter's Basilica in Rome soon after 8pm on Wednesday night.
All day the rain poured down on a growing sea of umbrellas, but it eased after the white smoke billowed out of the chimney at 7.07pm, and the crowd waited with palpable excitement to see who would emerge on to the verandah beside the senior cardinal-deacon to be announced as pope.
When Cardinal Jean-Louis Touran intoned his name, then his papal name of Francis, there was a gasp, and then wild applause.
Through the day there had been a growing sense of expectation. Black smoke after the first two ballots in the late morning simply convinced many that it would be white in the evening, and they were right. People huddled all day, shivering, under the sweeping colonnades that stretch out from St Peter's like embracing arms, and as the evening wore on more and more spilled into the square itself. As it got dark, the square was almost filled.
They chatted excitedly, photographed each other, sang, prayed and said the rosary, while many more stood silently, eyes fixed on the giant screens around the square. As it got dark, the lights on the colonnades and especially spotlighting the magnificent basilica, were reflected, glistening, in the puddles, until they too disappeared beneath the throng.
Then came the smoke: white. WHITE! The realisation was sudden, and electrifying. From outside the square, thousands more hurried into it, many running. In the hour before the new pope appeared - during which time he was following ancient rituals - there was plenty to look at. Brass bands came marching in front of the basilica, and there was a formal hand-over from the Carabinieri, who had been responsible for security during the period between popes, back to the Swiss Guards, whose job it usually is. Swords were raised and lowered, a smart march across the square, and the usual status quo was resumed.
The cameras panned around the square and excited pilgrims recognised themselves on the screens, and jumped and waved. Flags were brandished from around the world, but particularly the yellow and white emblem of the pope, plus the Italian and European flags.
It was a rich emotional cocktail of exultation combined with a more spiritual joy, expectation and relief. The church had a leader once more.
An ascetic-looking figure, the Jesuit cardinal smiled warmly and joked that cardinals seemed to have gone to the ends of the earth to find the new pope. He asked for prayers for himself and his predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who will soon live near him in the Vatican.
After his few words and the blessing urbi et orbi, to the city (of Rome) and world, he smiled again and said "buona notte e buon ripose", good night and sleep well.