First-hand experience: UD students and Fort Worth seminarians were in Rome when white smoke appeared

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen


For young Catholics studying in Rome this semester, the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis provided a once in a lifetime opportunity you can’t experience in a classroom.

“It’s been a huge blessing,” says Maria Buckner, a University of Dallas student who is spending her sophomore year at the school’s Eugene Constantin Rome campus.

The biology major from Missouri attended the final Mass, Angelus, and public audience given by Pope Benedict and was in St. Peter’s Square for the election of his successor.

“The variety of people in the square was heartening. Catholicism is still alive and kicking not just within the bubble of my world, but across the globe,” she enthused. “I could really see the Body of Christ in those couple of hours spent in the square.”

As white puffs billowed out of the smokestack and an enthusiastic throng waited for the Vatican’s balcony doors to open, people standing around Buckner and her classmates buzzed with excitement. She remembered an Italian woman adamantly hoping for an American or Filipino pope.

“I believe the Holy Spirit is with the Church and the College of Cardinals and whatever decision they reach is with his help,” she added. “I will say though, having a New World pope is very cool.”

UD student Alex Taylor spent his first weeks in Rome visiting significant religious sites like Subiaco, an early retreat of St. Benedict, and the hermitage of St. Francis in the hills of Assisi. But the weeks between Pope Benedict’s resignation until the election of a new pope allowed the Austin native to witness the living Church make its own history. The sophomore attended Pope Benedict’s Ash Wednesday Mass and was in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis appeared for the first time.

“I had plans to leave for spring break the following night, so I felt blessed to witness the first moments of his papacy,” Taylor said.

Welcoming the new Holy Father alongside other pilgrims allowed him to experience the universal Church.

“It really strengthened my faith life by allowing me to see the big picture,” he explained. “Being this close to the Church reminds me that God’s plan is to bring us all closer together in his Son. Embracing that call is what truly brings deep and profound change.”

Two seminarians from the Diocese of Fort Worth studying for the priesthood in Rome were also thankful observers of Church history. Joe Keating was able to position himself 30 yards from the front barricades after the cheering crowds noticed white smoke in the rain-filled skies. As the giant bells of St. Peter’s pealed, he said the anticipation intensified. With every rustle of balcony curtains, the swarm of people around him cheered.

“Finally, the windows swung open and the cardinal stepped out announcing, ‘Habemus papam,’” Keating recounted.

But the reaction of the crowd was not what he expected. After hearing the name of the new pontiff, instead of cheers, a hushed murmur traveled across the plaza.

“In dozens of different languages, everyone seemed to be thinking, ‘What did he say? Bergoglio? Who is that?,’” he said, recalling the confusion.

Standing with other classmates from Rome’s Pontifical North American College, the seminarian and his friends pulled out their smartphones and desperately tried to find information on Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

“It was no use. The cell towers couldn’t handle the number of phones in the piazza,” Keating said, disclosing the kink in first world technology.

Once the new pope stepped outside, it didn’t take the St. Mark, Denton parishioner or the rest of the crowd long to recognize his humility and self-deprecation.

“A great sense of hope, joy, and zeal washed over me,” he continued. “This pope’s leadership will shape my priestly ministry.”

Offered the opportunity to study in Rome by former Fort Worth Bishop Kevin Vann, Keating and Matthew Tatyrek arrived in the Eternal City in July 2011. The chance of witnessing a papal conclave was always a possibility.

“But the conclave under these circumstances was certainly unexpected,” continues Tatyrek, a native of Vernon who belongs to Holy Family of Nazareth Church.

What he noticed most over the past few weeks was the sense of prayerful reflection that seemed to blanket the process. Visiting the Pontifical North American College after the pope was elected, the U.S. cardinals told the seminarians the experience was a “type of Pentecost.”

“Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said in the days before the conclave and during the voting they (the cardinals) really felt the prayers of the universal Church while making this decision,” Tatyrek revealed. “The presence of the Holy Spirit was felt throughout the process. Jesus looked after his Church by providing it with a good shepherd, Pope Francis.”

For young Catholics studying in Rome this semester, the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis provided a once in a lifetime opportunity you can’t experience in a classroom.