As the rain soaked the square, the crowd began to gather in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, watching, waiting. Mike Madeja was one of thousands of people who began to gather inside the Vatican on March 13 in anticipation of witnessing first-hand the election of the next pope.
Standing in the rain since 4 p.m. local time, Madeja witnessed the crowd grow into an “ecstatic chaos,” the first vote earlier in the afternoon had already ended in a plume of black smoke: no pope.
Then, shortly after 7 p.m., smoke again began to pour out of the small copper chimney atop the famed Sistine Chapel.
In Madeja’s words, a moment of anticipation filled the crowd, all trying to decipher the signal of the gray smoke. And then they cheered.
“‘Bianco Bianco, WHITE SMOKE WHITE SMOKE’ was all that could be heard aside from the shouts. Then the bells rang, we all got goosebumps and started yelling too just because we couldn’t believe it,” Madeja said in a message.
Madeja, a junior biological anthropology and Italian major, was just one of several Temple Rome students who dotted the crowd outside last week’s Papal Conclave, and who witnessed first-hand the unveiling of the 266th leader of the Catholic world.
In separate correspondences, conducted over social media, several students shared with The Temple News their experiences inside St. Peter’s Square as witnesses to what is sure to be one of the iconic moments of 2013.
The conclave, which ended in the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be named Pope Francis, was announced following another unique event in the Catholic Church: the resignation of the former pope, Benedict XVI.
“When I first heard that the Pope retired, I immediately knew that this was a historic moment. I knew that it wasn’t common for popes to retire but didn’t realize that it had been 600 years since it happened last,” said Megan Winton, a junior psychology major studying abroad in Rome who also was in the square to see the presentation of the new pope.
The conclave began just as students from Temple Rome were returning from their spring break, which meant some had classes.
“When news of the white smoke came out, I was actually in class, and our professor kept going,” Courtney Thomas, a junior strategic and organizational communications, said. “After I got out at 7:50 [p.m.], I jumped on the subway with one of my friends and ran over. It was absolute insanity…we couldn’t even get close, but we could still kind of see the balcony. There were a group of nuns crying next to us, and people were singing and shouting.”
As the students told it, the emotions in the crowd only grew after Francis, the first Jesuit and native of the New-World to be elected to the Papacy, was announced.
“After he came out, most of the discussion was about who he was…since he’s from Latin America and a Jesuit, there was a lot to talk about,” Thomas said.
Terry Rey, a professor of religion at Temple, said the election of Francis reflected a demographic shift in the Catholic community.
“The last time I attended mass in Philly, I heard many more people in attendance speaking Spanish than English. If the pope is the face of the Catholic Church… then his face should thus look like all these people and he should sound a great deal like them, too,” Rey said.
While people all over the world made the pilgrimage to Rome in the days prior to the conclave, Temple Rome students and fellow students from American colleges studying abroad, had a unique opportunity to experience history being made.
Madeja, who was raised Catholic, but no longer identifies with the religion, shared his experience with several of his Temple classmates, as well as students he met from the University of Dallas, sparking a conversation after he saw a member of their group holding and American flag.
“Thinking about how around or over 1 billion people find this to be a huge occasion, if not one of the more important experiences of their lives, heightened the situation. I kept thinking about how I learned about all of the things that happened this week from the conclave to the current moment, and I was kind of just in shock,” Madeja said.
Thomas, whose Catholic upbringing and studying of the papacy in AP European History left her with a deep interest in the elections, said she was happy that she was able to share her experience with her religious grandparents back home, as well as in person with the people of Rome.
“I think what I’ll remember most was how wild everyone was about it, both Temple Rome students and people in Rome in general. It almost made me feel closer to being a part of Italian culture, too, since they were just as excited as we were,” Thomas said.
Winton, who was raised Lutheran, said she was struck by the importance the event played on the Catholic people.
“During the speech there was a moment of silence, it was the most surreal moment because there were tens of thousands of people who are excited and in the moment and to hear silence – it was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life,” Winton said.
For the many Temple students who witnessed the event on television back home, a moment of familiarity may have struck when two Temple students, identified as only Mike and Mark, were interviewed on national television by NBC News.
John Moritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JCMoritzTU.