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Students in Rome celebrate Francis

Kaitlyn Rabach | Tuesday, March 19, 2013

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped onto the Vatican balcony to reveal himself as the new leader of the Catholic Church on Wednesday, several Saint Mary’s students waiting in St. Peter’s Square witnessed this historic moment.

Sophomores Nikki Charter, Lauren Osmanski and Tori Wilbraham are participating in the College’s study abroad semester in Rome. Charter, a communications major, said seeing the result of the conclave’s decision has been the highlight of her semester.  

“This entire semester has been an absolute whirlwind,” Charter said. “The conclave has been the best part of my experience so far. Words cannot describe what it felt like to be in [St. Peter's] Square and in the midst of it all.”

The three students said the excitement began when they attended the opening conclave Mass on March 12th.  Wilbraham, a religious studies major, said the Mass’s atmosphere felt electric.  

“Knowing I was in the room with the future pope at that Mass was very exciting,” Wilbraham said. “You could really start to feel an atmosphere of uncertainty and excitement after the Mass finished and the cardinals proceeded to start the conclave.”

After the Mass, the students said they waited anxiously to see white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, an indication that the conclave had made a decision. Osmamski, a business major, said their thoughts and prayers remained focused on the conclave.  

“We, like the rest of the world, had to wait to see the smoke,” Osmanski said. “We waited and waited. We prayed the Holy Spirit would guide the conclave and white smoke would appear soon. “

While waiting, Charter and other members of the abroad program draped United States and Saint Mary’s flags around their arms.

“I was proud to represent my country and my school,” Charter said. “Words cannot express how much I love Saint Mary’s College. This school empowers young Catholic women. Saint Mary’s gave me the opportunity to be here for this experience and I could not be more thankful.”

Osmanski said when the smoke appeared around 8 p.m. local time, everyone in the crowd cheered, “It’s white. It’s white.”

“We sprinted forward when we saw the white smoke,” Osmanski said. “We wanted to be as close as we could to the balcony so we could see the new pope emerge.”

Charter said the crowd was “buzzing” and attempting to guess who would be the next leader of the Catholic Church.

“When the cardinals first came out, the crowd was cheering with excitement and then almost [immediately] the crowd fell silent,” Charter said. “Thousands of people were in that square and every single person was silent, waiting for one man to appear on the balcony. At that moment, waiting for the new pope to emerge, you could really feel the power of prayer and faith.”

Wilbraham said when Pope Francis first walked onto the balcony, her heart stopped and she “took a deep breath in awe” of this man.

“It was as if no one could say anything for a couple of seconds,” Wilbraham said. “Everyone was in true awe of this man. I thought to myself, ‘This is real. This is happening. The seat is no longer empty. We have a father of our church again.’”

Osmanski said she first did not understand the official announcement introducing the new pope to the world.

“Around us people were yelling ‘Argentina. Argentina’,” Osmanski said. “That is when we made the connection and were more than happy our new pope is non-European.”

Osmanski said everyone around her was excited about “this breath of fresh air.”

“Because Pope Francis is from Argentina, he will bring a new perspective to the table,” Osmanski said. “This is important and sculpts a more inclusive community. Catholic roots run deeper than Europe and I truly believe this will benefit the Church in the greatest way possible.”

Charter said Pope Francis seems like a humble man who will take the Church in a new direction.

“He will lead the Church into a new era,” Charter said. “When he stood on that balcony he showed the world that the Catholic community is still strong.”

Wilbraham said the entire experience has reminded her of the international Catholic community.

“This whole experience makes you realize that this Church is more than you and your own personal faith,” Wilbraham said. “It is even more than the people of your parish.”

All three students said their experiences in Rome have started them on a spiritual journey of a lifetime.

“None of us thought it would be such a spiritual journey,” Wilbraham said. “The growth in my faith is the biggest thing I will take with me when I leave to return to the States. I was able to witness historic events with the company of some of my best friends. Everyone on this program was able to witness the start of a new era in the Church – and for that I am very thankful.”