When Pope Benedict XVI resigned from his post in early February, the Vatican faced a situation they had not encountered in nearly 600 years. Last Wednesday’s conclave and the election of Pope Francis symbolized a shift in world religious culture similar to the election of a new president on the national level.
“There’s a part in our Mass where we pray for our Pope,” Catholic Campus Ministries President Jane Ryngaert ’13 said. “When we didn’t have a pope we left that part blank, but now we put in Francis’ name rather than Benedict’s.”
Most students at the College of William and Mary sat in middle-school classes when the Vatican produced white smoke in 2005. Now, just eight years later, students witnessed history again.
But, not all College students were stuck in Swem cramming for 3:30 p.m. Thursday exams during the historic moment. Sarah Sedlack ’14 experienced the event firsthand, standing among the crowds of onlookers in Saint Peter’s Square while studying abroad in Rome, Italy.
“It was pouring rain; I wasn’t properly dressed because I had just [gotten] out of class,” Sedlack said. “We just went to see the smoke, because we knew it was conclave. … We thought it was going to be black smoke, but it was white. Everyone rushed to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica past the barriers. It was insane, everyone was screaming and chanting. I cried; I was so emotional.”
For Sedlack, the event was unforgettable.
“It was incredible; to be a part of that crowd and be a part of history was amazing,” Sedlack said. “It was probably the most incredible event of my life.”
As pope, Pope Francis serves as the leader of the Catholic Church. Students involved in CCM described their feelings toward the decision, drawing attention to the unusual causes for the papal election.
“Benedict was a very beloved pope,” Ryngaert said. “When there’s a papal transition, it’s usually a sad event because the previous pope passed away. But this time around was strange; definitely very exciting, but we weren’t sure how to feel at first.”
The event was also watched by members of the campus religious studies department.
“Within Christianity, the pope is both a leader and a servant,” religious studies Professor Alexander Angelov said. “In an era of modernity when political leaders choose to retain their power when people have elected [them], the pope has voluntarily given it away. … It’s a recognition and a sign of humbleness.”
Even though Benedict XVI resigned, he remains the Pope Emeritus and will continue to serve the Catholic Church.
The new pope, previously named Father Jorge Beroglio, chose his new name, Pope Francis, in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his benevolence toward the poor.
“Perhaps the pope in fact is choosing the name St. Francis to put his finger on the poverty disparity in the world,” Angelov said. “There is a highly concentrated amount of wealth in an ever-growing impoverished section. Maybe by choosing this name it’s a reminder for the average person in the world to work toward creating a more just world with less deprived people.”
Not only is Pope Francis the first Jesuit pope in history, but as an Argentine, he is also the first pope from a continent other than Europe. As the Catholic Church’s base demographic shifts more towards Latin American and African communities, some believe that Pope Francis’ appointment is symbolic of this transition.
“A lot of people think this is a confusing and difficult time for the church, but it’s actually very exciting,” Ryngaert said. “It’s hard to say goodbye to a [loved] father figure , but God gave us a new pope and that’s come along with a lot of hope and opportunity.”