ROME — Young U.S. Catholics studying in Rome are enthusiastic about Pope Francis.
Joshua Cambria, a convert to Catholicism who hails from Providence, R.I., and a student-services officer at John Cabot University in Rome, said he ran to St. Peter’s upon seeing the white smoke while watching the conclave proceedings on TV.
"I was personally hoping for [Italian Cardinal Angelo] Scola, a grand Ambrosian theologian with an appetite for reform. But, again, I am both surprised and pleased with the outcome of the holy conclave," said Cambria, who describes himself as being as much of an Italian as an American.
Like Cambria, other American students in Rome had their particular thoughts and hopes about who would succeed Benedict XVI.
Tatum McWhirter, a philosophy and theology student at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, said she was rooting for Canada’s Marc Ouellet, who, like U.S. Cardinals Sean O’Malley and Timothy Dolan, was touted by many analysts as a contender prior to the conclave.
Standing in the easing rain in the piazza, after the second and third ballots burned black, just before noon — a few hours before Francis was elected on the fifth ballot — Rome-based seminarians Sean Grismer and Adam Potter agreed that "it would be great for the Church in America if one of the American cardinals is elected," as Potter, a Pittsburgh native, put it.
But both men, who study at Rome’s Pontifical North American College, agreed that it would not matter who emerged as the 266th Pope.
Grismer, from Rockford, Ill., remarked, "We won’t have any difficulty loving and supporting him if it’s not [an American]."
Wet But United
Another unifying aspect of the conclave was the rain-sodden Roman spring. As the crowds began to fill St. Peter’s Square on the evening of March 13, the view from above was a kaleidoscopic sea of umbrellas.
The rain beat down for most of the intervening hours until Pope Francis appeared for the first time on the balcony overlooking the square.
A humorous interlude during the wait was provided by a seagull alighting on top of the chimney over the Sistine Chapel, out of which later puffed the white smoke to announce that our new Pope had been elected.
When Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran emerged at 8:12pm to declare "Habemus Papam!" ("We have a pope!"), elaborating that the Argentinian winner had taken the name Francis, the seagull-landing episode seemed appropriate — and compelling — in retrospect, given how St. Francis of Assisi is often portrayed as surrounded by birds or with a dove nestling in his hand.
McWhirter, a Nebraskan, said being in Rome to witness papal history was an exceptional experience for her and her fellow students.
"It has been a unique experience studying with people — mostly seminarians — from around the world and talking to them about these events. We are finding that this is uniting us because we all share one Pope and one Church," she said.
Looking ahead to the new pontificate of Francis, Kyle Larson, a recent convert to Catholicism from Amery, Wis., shared something similar to comments of some Vatican experts, for whom the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was a surprise. "I don’t know much about the new Pope, but I feel that he should be the best for the job, since God has called him to do such things," said the business student, now a few months into an academic term in Rome at the University of Mary.
Minnesotan Mary Wermerskirchen, another University of Mary student, has high hopes for the new Pope: "Pope Francis, or
Papa Francesco, as the Italians say … is a pope of many firsts; and at a time like this, we need something radical to happen to all of us."
An Exhilarating Experience
And regardless of what comes next, experiencing a conclave firsthand was widely described by American students as an exhilarating experience.
Adam Potter put it this way: "It’s a real privilege to be studying in Rome at this time. It’s a historic moment, when you think of it — the Lord raising up a shepherd to lead his Church."
Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia for several publications
and was on assignment in Rome for
the Register during the