If you would have told Jeff Bruno 10 or 15 years ago that he would be front and center with his camera in hand for the conclave and election of Pope Francis, he wouldn’t have believed it.
His tale of traveling to Rome to cover the historic event goes beyond his purchase of an airline ticket and a checked bag full of camera equipment. It involves a meeting of his artistic talents and his reversion to his Catholic faith.
The 47-year-old father of two recently spoke with the Register about his journey back to the faith of his youth and how he ended up covering the election of the new Holy Father.
While you grew up Catholic, you fell away from the Church. What is the next chapter of the story?
Six or seven years ago, it dawned on me: Here we were, sending our kids to Catholic schools, but I did not even know if I believed in God. So I started to investigate somewhat and came across the First Commandment: It calls us to love, honor and serve God with our whole heart, mind and soul. And if it is true that these things are written in their order of importance, then I was on my way to hell. I didn’t love God. I only somewhat sort of rationally believed he existed. I thought, "I am finished." It was a very difficult time in my life.
How did you get back to Church?
This part I can only attribute to God’s grace. We lived — and still do today — in an old, Civil War-era house on the Jersey Shore. A Catholic church is just two blocks away. I said, "Okay, fine; this is what I am going to do."
Everybody says that if you want to know God, then you need to get into the state of grace and receive the sacraments. So I devised a program where I would go to Mass every single, solitary day; I was then going to go to confession and pray. I thought, "Let’s just see what happens." So I would walk over to the eight o’clock Mass every day for about three months. … I would kneel down and say the same prayers, which involved me telling God how I didn’t know if he existed and was not sure how he could love me.
How did your attitude change?
One day, I ended up telling God that I needed a sign or something in order to know that he was real. And it wasn’t long after, when I knelt down and recited my usual prayers of doubt — all of a sudden, I was touched in such a way that I was overcome with a sense of peace, love and joy. It was unbelievable. In that moment, it was like God literally touched me, and it changed everything. It was definitely a conversion experience for me.
Where does your photography work fit into all of this?
I started taking pictures when I was in high school and always loved the visual arts. However, I didn’t go professional until about 10 years ago. Turning "pro" just sort of happened. I guess I gravitated towards it above other things.
One of the great benefits of being a Catholic and a photographer is that, as you shoot many of these truly sacred events, be it in a small, inner-city diocesan church or in the Sistine Chapel, you realize that you are capturing more than what’s visible. God is present in a very substantial way, and you can see it and feel it in the eyes and reactions of the people who are participating in whatever it might be.
How did you end up in Rome for the election of Pope Francis?
Being a freelancer and a photographer, it’s always hit-and-miss with being able to cover the major events. So many things need to be in place. Honestly, I wasn’t really considering going until I got prodded by Karna Swanson of the Archdiocese of Denver, who offered to facilitate things for me. That got me thinking. I then contacted Harold Fickett of Aleteia [online Catholic faith news and features supported by the Foundation for Evangelization through the Media], for whom I work part time as art director and a media consultant, and one thing led to another. Before I knew it, I was walking down Via della Conciliazione outside of St. Peter’s to pick up my media credentials.
What were the days leading up to the election of Pope Francis like?
The experience was epic. What made this event different than any other that I’ve covered was the fact that nobody really knew what was going on. I mean, there was no schedule for a pope stepping down … nor for the votes or the outcome. Nobody knew. So it was a lot of standing around in the rain waiting.
At the same time, this, in and of itself, was the event. There is nothing like the experience of standing in St. Peter’s, in the rain — surrounded by thousands of faithful — waiting for the smoke to pour out of a chimney. Being there and experiencing all the physical and visual aspects of the conclave and understanding that the Holy Spirit was actually at work — through the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel a few meters away ... that God himself was working with his Church to appoint a new shepherd — was beyond explanation.
Do you have a favorite memory from the conclave and election?
There were a few moments during the trip that really stood apart. One was the night of the white smoke. We were standing around for a few hours in the main area (not the press area) in St. Peter’s Square getting rained on. All the pundits expected the smoke to be black for the last ballot of the evening. When the smoke finally came, people were actually turning to leave — and this was cut short by the absolute shock of the fact that the smoke was white.
Everyone was stunned. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this, or so the great minds thought. Then this explosive wave of joy swept through the crowd, accompanied by the deafening screams of elation and the thunderous sound of all the bells in Rome proclaiming the news: "Habemus Papam!"
When the name of "Bergoglio" was announced, the crowds fell silent, time stood still, and there was a collective "Who?" But it didn’t take but a few moments for the gravity of the fact — that there was a new shepherd — to overtake us.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, and I was lucky to be capturing it.
Eddie O’Neill writes from