(Links to Quad Cities media coverage can be found below.)
Sixteen alumni, staff and friends of St. Ambrose—including the university's president—were among the faithful who experienced a profound and unforgettable moment in world history when Pope Francis I was introduced on Wednesday.
The contingent of Ambrosians were in St. Peter's Square while in the midst of an annual nine-day tour of "Ambrose's Italy" led by Rev. Robert "Bud" Grant '80, PhD, professor of theology and founder of the university's Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose.
"I came away with an extraordinary sense that something historic had happened, and we were deeply privileged to have been there to witness it," said Sister Joan Lescinski CSJ, SAU president. "To have the first pope from the Western Hemisphere speaks volumes about the church today."
Fr. Grant cited a series of coincidences that led the group to witness the introduction of the first non-European pope since the Middle Ages.
"We usually do our alumni trip in the spring, but I thought we'd try spring break this year," he said. "We usually begin in Rome and end in Milan, but I decided to switch it around this year. We usually leave Assisi early in the morning. But this year we took an extra half-day."
And so—hours after exploring the humble beginnings of the patron saint of animals and the environment, as well as one of the church's earliest champions of the poor—the group was led in prayer by the first pope to assume the name of St. Francis.
Christa Orfitelli '98 said the touring Ambrosians found "much meaning" in that name choice, particularly after their morning in Assisi. "I think his chosen name speaks to who he is, and I find hope in that," she said.
Sr. Joan said the pope's quiet bearing was impressive.
"He had an incredibly calming and gentle presence," she said, "and I was deeply touched that, even before he gave us that first papal blessing, he led us in prayers that all of us knew: the Our Father and the Hail Mary.
"I heard multiple languages reciting the prayers and I did so in English. It gave me an incredible sense of the universality of the church, that people from every land in the world were represented in that square."
Sr. Joan had been separated from the group when plans to meet for dinner were changed in favor of venturing to the Vatican as the conclave of Cardinals was in the process of choosing a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
Fr. Grant also had separated from the group, but, improbably, managed to find them among the thousands of pilgrims and international media gathered in the rain in St. Peter's piazza.
While awaiting news, the American priest was interviewed by television reporters from New York and Philadelphia. Then, suddenly, telltale wisps of white smoke emerged from the six-foot chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
"We saw the smoke and the place went crazy," Fr. Grant said. "We all went crazy. We waited 45 minutes and the rain stopped and the stars came out and the Swiss Guard marched in to pledge allegiance to the new pope."
Soon after, the balcony façade on the chapel was bathed in light. "A cardinal came out and told us ‘habemus papem,' and that his name is Francis," Fr. Grant said.
When the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, stepped onto the balcony, tools from the new age of instantaneous communication offered stark contrast to the Vatican's 150-year-old tradition of signaling a pope has been chosen via smoke from a chimney. "We saw a sea of smart phones and iPad screens light up," said Fr. Grant.
As Pope Francis I began to speak, Fr. Grant said the teeming piazza became as quiet as the crypt of St. Francis had been when the priest had knelt there alone earlier that day.
"It was an emotional moment," he said. "He blessed us, the city, the church and all the men and women of good will. He spoke in the metaphor of a pilgrimage, a walk, together. Then he told us good night, good rest, and left. We hooked arms and wove our way out and then down a few side streets I know of to get out of the crowds. And then we were in the city and in shock at what we had experienced."
Ambrosians who accompanied Sr. Joan and Fr. Grant on the trip included Vice President of Advancement Jim Stangle '82, Ryan Brant '02, David and Joleen Gardner, Kathy '94 and Dimitri Papageorgiou, Gary '73 and Katherine Gansemer, Justin Heaton '10, Mary Borys '82, Paul Tournai '82 and Paul '02 and Breann '05 Thompson.