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AREA PRIEST RECALLS DUTY REPORTING ON PAPAL ELECTION

Black smoke momentarily, then distinctively white smoke. Then back to black.

The Rev. Richard Amico and the tens of thousands of others in St. Peter's Square couldn't be certain the conclave had elected a new pope that hot Saturday afternoon in August 1978.

"It was black and then it was white and then black again. Nobody knew," said Amico, a Niagara Falls priest who served as a special correspondent for The News during the first conclave of 1978.

It was, indeed, supposed to be white smoke -- the signal from the Sistine Chapel indicating a new pope has been selected. The conclave ended Aug. 25 with the election of Cardinal Albino Luciani, archbishop of Venice, who took the name John Paul I.

"People were thrilled it wasn't someone from the Curia, that it was a pastoral man," recalled Amico, who also covered John Paul I's installation Mass.

Amico, serving at a parish in Dunkirk at the time, arranged to fly to Rome immediately after the death of Pope Paul VI to witness history in the making.

Editors at The News, with the help of the Diocese of Buffalo, asked Amico if he would relay stories about what was happening in Vatican City.

"I used to call them over the phone, the whole article," he said.

Technology has improved since then. The News received its stories from Rome the past two weeks either by e-mail or through special software allowing copy to be typed directly into its computer system.

Still, Amico had a distinct advantage over many reporters during his brief stint as a correspondent. He could speak six languages, including Italian, the language of the Vatican.

"Before long," he remembered, "all of these different foreign correspondents were coming to me asking questions."

Not long after Amico returned to Dunkirk, only 34 days into the new papacy, Pope John Paul I died, stunning the world.

The Rev. Charles Amico, who teaches at Christ the King Seminary, picked up where his brother left off.

Charles Amico, who was doing research in Rome at the time, covered the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II.

"All came to a sudden quiet when the pope's name was announced and when the new pontiff came out," he wrote for The News' Oct. 17 editions. "His election pleased nearly everyone, although they hadn't heard of him. The collective groan that seemed to come across the television was not disappointment but wonder. People milled around asking, 'Who is he? Where is he from?' "

Of course, 26 years later the world is well aware of John Paul II and his legacy.

And Richard Amico, now pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Niagara Falls, believes the 115 elector cardinals who begin meeting in conclave today would be well served to find someone who can connect with young people the way John Paul II did.

Kids exposed to "so much duplicity in the world" understood that the pope "truly believed what he spoke about," Amico said.

The next pontiff, he added, also will have to be a willing traveler and communicator.

"You can't have a pope who's just going to retire in the background with prayers," he said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com