There was no mistaking the colour of the suffocating smoke that came pouring out the chimney above the Sistine Chapel on the evening of 12 March after the first vote of the cardinals to elect the new pope.
There was nothing unexpected about its colour, as no one had imagined that the 115 cardinal electors would come up with the two-thirds majority (or 77 votes) to elect the new pontiff on the first ballot.
But the density of the smoke signal was quite new. In many previous conclaves the smoke has sometimes been so wispy-grey that it has taken a while to work out whether is was black or white. This time round it looks as though there will be no margin for error.
But while we are all concentrating on the smoke, the possible papabili, the voting blocks, the new pope’s possible new name, the sex abuse scandals and the chronic mismanagement within the governance of the universal Church we have forgotten to see what is most obviously not there.
Has anyone seen a woman in all the Vatican commentary, filming, confabulations and general buzz surrounding who will be the next head of the universal Church? Perhaps we all blinked at the wrong moment and missed the women among all those men coming out of the Sistine Chapel when the doors were shut on the 115 cardinal electors?
Where are the women councillors, administrators, heads of departments and deaneries of the universal Church? There are some, and very able ones at that. But who knows their names and how often are they seen? Who will be the first cardinal, or even bishop, to walk down the streets of Rome, or any other metropolis, with a woman advisor at his right or left-hand side?
Don’t let’s be controversial; don’t let’s even mention the subject of women priests quite yet. Let’s just get the male hierarchy of the universal Church to think universally. Before the end of the next papacy let’s make sure that the Vatican press office has women on its top table giving media briefings, that women are in the procession that walks down the nave of St Peter’s to celebrate Mass, that women are among the directors of the controversial Vatican bank and that the cardinals (at least some of them) walk down the streets of Rome with women advisors at their side. Is this really asking too much?