Like a nuclear missile silo, my agency's Vatican file had its own doomsday file - a hardbound manila folder on which a typewritten sticky label had emblazoned in telex font capitals: WHAT TO DO IN CASE THE POPE DIES. While many of the instructions dated back to 1961 and could be safely ignored, it was still an interesting study in panic.
The first step was to put a call through to the London bureau, the instructions read: "It should take you no longer than three minutes for the operator to get you a line," it hectored.
The next step was to source the news to the Italian wire agency ANSA or Vatican Radio releasing a bulletin that read: VATICAN CITY -- ANSA REPORTING POPE DEAD at a lower wire speed priority. The pope could actually be dead for hours, and the world fully informed of the fact, before the news came officially from the Vatican press office.
Only then could the bulletin: VATICAN CITY -- OFFICIAL POPE DEAD be released at "flash'' priority -- the highest wire speed reserved for papal deaths, presidential assassinations and a few other world beating news stories.
After the "flash" went out, as Ridley recalled at the time, it was a total circus and anyone's race.
"It was hugely and highly secretive and there were rumors flying around for weeks,'' he told me. "The whole thing was fairly agonizing.''
The secretive conclave, in which electing cardinals are "locked in'' the Vatican until a decision on the next pope is made, is tension personified. The only indication as to whether a decision is made comes from the burning of the ballots at the end of each day. According to Vatican lore, the smoke is black (due to the fact that the ballots were mixed with damp hay) when a decision is still to be reached and white when a new pope has been decided.
In the case of John XXIII, the smoke went from black to white to a sort of grey color and back to white again, Ridley recalled.
"The whole thing was sort of medieval,'' Ridley told me at the time. These days chemicals, rather than hay, are mixed with the ballots to prevent the kind of confusion that occurred with John XXIII.
The most nerve-racking part of the enterprise, however, was backgrounding the more than 100 electing cardinals, all of whom theoretically had a chance at the top job.
"And they always chose someone you'd never heard of. I remember John XXIII was just the papal nuncio in Paris -- no one considered him for a moment," Ridley told me. "And all the time, if the other (agencies) were ahead by five minutes, you were lost.