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Students abroad in Rome celebrate new pope

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The eyes of the world turned to the Vatican to watch the white smoke billow out from the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday, but Notre Dame students studying abroad in Europe were able to stand in St. Peter’s square below and witness the announcement of the new pope firsthand.

A report from the Associated Press said the smoke signal came around 8 p.m. local time or 2 p.m. EST. Approximately an hour later, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, stepped onto the balcony above the crowd and greeted them as the new pope, adopting the name Francis. 

Junior Megan Leicht, an architecture student abroad in Rome, said she and her classmates immediately ran to St. Peter’s square upon hearing about the white smoke, joining the tens of thousands of people gathered there.

“We all sprinted down the street, dodging people and umbrellas and honking cars and speeding vespas… while trying not to slip on the cobblestone streets and travertine curbs,” Leicht said. “We finally made it and snuck our way as close to the front as possible, just like everyone else.

“The suspense continued as we waited for an hour to see the window open for the mystery cardinal. When he finally came out, everyone was so happy to see him we all began clapping and cheering at the first words of his speech.”

Another architecture student in Rome, junior Patrick Riordon, also sprinted more than two kilometers from his classroom to the square at the news of the white smoke.

“I threw all shame to the wind, grabbed my camera and ran down Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which leads almost straight from our building to the Vatican,” Riordon said. “I grabbed my rosary out of my pocket and started to pray, but the excitement of the crowd and my friends around me got to be too much. We were speculating about who would be chosen and what name he would take.”

Riordon said he was surrounded by flags of all nations and people representing every race, and the entire square was ringing with cheers and chants in all languages. The news was not understood immediately because of the noise and chaos, he said, but once the message was translated and received by all, cheers went up for “Francisco Primo.”

“When he finally came out on to the balcony, the look on his face was grave, obviously trying to take in everything that was happening,” Riordon said. “His words were confident and the focus of everything he said was prayer.

“The entire congregation joined him in praying the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be in Italian, and he closed by saying ‘good night and rest well,'” he said. “I think his humility and austere lifestyle are good indicators that he will be an exemplary leader and inspire the world.”

Molly Carmona, another junior architecture major, said the evening was “an amazing experience that is irreplaceable.”

“No other event in the world would have the driving force to gather hundreds of thousands of people from all different locations and cultures together in one square in a matter of 30 minutes,” Carmona said. “I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to witness history being made in the Catholic Church.”

Junior Kelsie Corriston, a participant in the Rome program, made two trips to the Vatican on Wednesday, one to see the black smoke after the morning vote and another for the celebratory moment in the evening. She said there was a “sense of impending history” in the square, and the opportunity to witness it with fellow members of the Notre Dame community was “amazing.”

“We cracked open some champagne we had brought for the occasion, toasted to the new pope’s health and waited for the announcement about the identity of the new pope,” Corriston said. “It was pouring rain, cold and pure chaos, but we had an amazing time … we waited and waited, just taking in the amazing, glorious scene.

“We broke out our ‘Conclave Like a Champion Today’ banner, [and] the best part was waiting for the announcement, because curtains kept moving on the second floor of St. Peter’s. … [Finally], the crowd erupted into cheers of ‘Francesco, Viva Francesco.”

Maria Kosse, a junior in Notre Dame’s London program, made the trip from England to witness the conclave in action. She said “the entire square erupted” at the unexpected sight of white smoke.     

“We got to St. Peter’s square around 5 p.m., and stood in the pouring rain for two hours until we saw the smoke,” Kosse said. “Everyone was hugging and cheering ‘Viva Il Papa’… The electricity in the crowd was tangible.

“When he came onto the balcony my entire body had chills, and when he addressed the crowd it was silent, all of the thousands of people in unity praying with him. And then the rain stopped right when he came out.”

Bergoglio is the first non-European pope elected in the modern era, and junior Nathalia Conte Silvestre, a native of Sao Paolo, Brazil, who is studying in Bologna, Italy, said she believes the historic selection represents “a new phase” in Church history.

“I’m really happy to see the Catholic Church branching out and picking someone from a part of the world that is so faithful and that adds so much to the Church,” Silvestre said. “Personally, I’m not Catholic, but his benediction, and especially his humble request for prayers before he himself could offer his blessing, makes me very glad to see the Catholic Church is in great hands.”

Junior Claire Spears, abroad this semester through the Rome program, said the moment when Bergoglio stepped out from behind the curtain in the Vatican was “indescribable.”

“Being in Rome [during the] conclave, seeing the white smoke and receiving Pope Francis’ first benediction are experiences that can’t be paralleled,” Spears said. “I will remember this night for the rest of my life as one of the best things I’ve been a part of. As a Catholic, this is something that I cannot forget.”