When faced with a few hours free in Rome March 13 during a study trip over Spring Break, several University of Rochester students opted to head to St. Peter’s Square, because they heard that smoke from the burning of conclave ballots was expected from the Sistine Chapel chimney within a half an hour.
A half an hour turned into an hour and a half, and still there was no smoke.
Suddenly, gray smoke billowed from the chimney, igniting chatter from the crowd. Then the smoke turned white, signaling that a new pope had been elected.
University of Rochester senior Peter Carlile of Burlington, Vt., recalled the shock of that moment.
"It was overwhelming," said Carlile, a biomedical engineering student who has a cluster in the classics. "It really hit us that this was a very momentous occasion, and we were smack dab in the middle of it."
Dan Gorman Jr., a junior studying history and religion who hails from Pearl River in Rockland County, said he turned and yelled to his professor, Nick Gresens.
"Before the trip, I was joking to my friends that if the white smoke went up while I was in Rome, I’d have the Campus Times scoop of the decade," Gorman said, noting he never imagined he’d be in St. Peter’s Square at the precise instant that white smoke was spotted. He said the five classics and religion students from the school were in Rome March 8-16 to study Latin inscriptions and tour historic locations.
Three of the five students on the trip had opted to go to the square that day, and they were quickly caught up in the excitement, as the crowd of a few thousand quickly ballooned to more than 100,000 people. The students managed to work their way toward the front of the square so that they could get a better view. They had a prime spot to view the pageantry of the Swiss Guard and the first speech by newly elected Pope Francis.
Carlile said when the pope’s name was announced in Latin, at first he thought maybe the new pope was one of the cardinals from Brazil. Later, as Pope Francis appeared before the crowd and greeted them in Italian, the American students did not understand much of what he said, but an Italian speaker near them translated a few phrases. The students also grasped that the pope had asked people to pray for Pope Benedict XVI, and the crowd responded in kind.
"When he asked for a moment of silence, the entire crowd fell silent," Carlile said. "You could hear the water in the fountains. After that he bowed to us, and everyone was like ‘Whoa.’"
He said the excitement of the pilgrims around the group was contagious.
"It was very easy to get into the spirit of the event," he said.