Our seminarian’s view from St. Peter’s Square

by Rob Adams

Mr. Adams is a seminarian for the diocese, studying at the North American College in Rome.


In many ways, Pope Benedict played a key role in my decision to enter seminary. I remember watching the white smoke in April, 2005, as a teenager. It was exciting that we had a pope who could do things. I got to Our seminarian’s view from St. Peter’s Squaresee him at World Youth Day in Germany. Later, I had the privilege to serve with the Holy Father for Good Friday, 2011, at the Vatican. And in the past year, I went to Pope Benedict’s Angelus address every Sunday afternoon in Rome.

When I look back on Benedict XVI’s papacy, two things stick out to me. First, he was a brilliant man who used his intelligence to teach Christ’s faithful. He did not live with his head in the clouds, but he saw teaching as a way to help people better understand and love the Lord. Second, Pope Benedict loved the Mass. To him, it was not just a fancy ceremony to make ourselves feel good. He loved the liturgy, because it is the place where we come face to face with Jesus. The Holy Father’s love for the liturgy and the intellectual life were contagious, and I imagine that we will feel these effects for quite awhile.

I went to Pope Benedict’s last public Mass and then his last Wednesday audience. Both events were totally packed. There was almost no room in St. Peter’s basilica or in the square for everyone who showed up. I think people realized what a treasure Pope Benedict was to the church. We could all feel that he was really leaving. Afterwards, everyone talked about his humility and the strength it took to resign from the papacy. The Roman city government even put out posters with Pope Benedict’s picture on the front with the caption “You will always be with us. Thank you!”

The conclave started on a Tuesday afternoon. A big crowd went down to St. Peter’s to watch the smoke. As expected, the smoke was black that night. The next smoke (fumata in Italian) was supposed to go up around noon the next day. I decided that if white smoke went up during school, I was going to run to the Vatican as fast as I could. I wore good running shoes and a light backpack to class. Several students gathered around a computer to watch the chimney, but the smoke was black again. Wednesday evening was going to be the fifth ballot of the conclave. We had heard that five ballots was the average length for a conclave in the last 100 years. One cardinal was staying at the seminary, because he was too old to vote in the conclave. He told us that he thought there would be white smoke that evening. At this point, we were getting excited, and there was just a common sensation that he was right. I got into the square around 6:45 p.m. and wormed my way to front of the crowd. It was dark, rainy, and cold. Secretly, I wanted black smoke, so I could go home and eat dinner. Most of the crowd was around the exits, so that they could go home if black smoke came out. But when the smoke came out at 7:05, it was white! No one could believe it. Everyone was cheering and shouting. The atmosphere was almost electric. The bells of St. Peter’s tolled for about half an hour, while the smoke kept pouring out from the Sistine Chapel. The crowd surged forward and I found myself pushed even closer. After a little while, the Swiss Guard and the Carabinieri (Italian military police) marched up to greet the new pope—whoever he was. Wecould all sense that we were part of history. I remembered watching all this on TV as a teenager, but it was different because I was really there! Finally, the lights came on in the Vatican and the cardinals came out to greet the crowd. The French proto-deacon walked out on the loggia (the balcony) and read off the traditional announcement “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, habemus papam!” (“I announce to you a great joy, we have a pope!”) When we heard that Cardinal Bergoglio had been elected, it was a surprise. No one knew who he was. But that was not important at the time. We had a pope! The Italians were thrilled that he had chosen Francis (one of the patrons of Italy) for his name.

When he finally came out onto the loggia, Pope Francis looked confident and a little somber. He spoke in very clear Italian “Dear brothers and sisters, good evening!” I was impressed that he started his pontificate with prayer. First, he had everyone say an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for Benedict XVI. Next he spoke about his mission to serve the universal church, but specifically the church in the Diocese of Rome. Then, he asked us to pray for him as bishop of his diocese. I was completely surprised that he bowed his head and had everyone pray over him. People did not quite know what to do with this. I remember hearing folks shout “What is he doing?” But, we could all tell that he cared about us and about the whole church. Everyone could see that Papa Francesco was a simple, prayerful, and holy man. I am grateful to God for the opportunity to have been there at this historic moment in the Church. I was praying for our diocese in Lexington that night, and I think that it was a great privilege to share this experience with everyone back home!

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