On this night one year ago, three Villanova University interns became witnesses to a remarkable event in St. Peter’s Square as white smoke emerged from the narrow chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
"We’d been out there for hours. It was raining. We were huddled under an umbrella and all of the sudden smoke appeared and we couldn’t tell if it was black or white and the crowd kind of paused for a second and then when we realized it was white, everyone just went insane," recalls Danielle McMonagle.
Back now at Villanova’s campus in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, on the morning of Pope Francis' first anniversary of his election, McMonagle, Sean Hudgins and Lauren Colegrove spent some time reminiscing about how their internships at the Vatican became extraordinary experiences.
Colegrove was working as an intern for the Catholic News Service. Her first day on the job, she was getting acclimated at her desk after meeting the staff when her editor’s phone rang and a reporter delivered the news that Pope Benedict was resigning.
"So everything just kind of exploded in that moment. Nobody really knew what to do,” Colegrove said. “It was incredibly unexpected." After all, the last time a pope had resigned was nearly 600 years ago.
McMonagle and Hudgins saw the news on Facebook, which was fitting considering they were about to start internships with the Vatican’s social media team.
"Sean and I were together getting ready to go to our first day of work and all the sudden we were on Facebook and we started seeing these stories about the Pope resigning and we were like, ‘What? Are we still going to have our jobs tomorrow,’” McMonagle said.
"Our friends were joking, ‘Oh, you got the pope kicked out,’" Hudgins remembers.
Being at the Vatican during that historic time gave the students an opportunity to both cover and experience the evening Pope Francis was elected, first-hand.
Hudgins and McMonagle didn't have to be at St. Peter’s Square the night that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit from Argentina, was elected to lead the Catholic Church. They insisted. It was the second day of voting and during the five previous conclaves to select a pope, it took an average of nearly three days for the College of Cardinals to elect the new pope. The voting follows a famous tradition, where after each secret ballot is cast, smoke emerges from the chimney of the conclave room. The cardinals vote until someone receives a vote of two-thirds, plus one. They burn the ballots after each vote. Black smoke shows a failed ballot. White smoke means a new pope has been elected. It was difficult to predict when they'd see white smoke.
"So we’d been out there for hours. It was raining. We were huddled under an umbrella and all of the sudden smoke appeared and we couldn’t tell if it was black or white and the crowd kind of paused for a second and then when we realized it was white everyone just went insane,” McMonagle said.
In the same moment, Hudgins said he remembers being awestruck.
"We looked around, everyone was really excited. There was a small group of nuns next to us, very tiny little women next to us and they were jumping up and down on each other, it was great to see,” Hudgins said.
Colegrove was just arriving back at her apartment after working in the square earlier that day.
"It was kind of a dreary day, and then the black smoke came that morning, so it was a little bit disappointing and no one expected him to be elected that early on,” Colegrove said. When she got word from her roommates that there was a new pope, they all rushed over to St. Peter’s Square, to wait for Pope Francis to appear.
"We got on the Metro and we took it over there. It was a really cool experience because I was in the Metro car when it was announced that he was the first pope from South America to be elected and it just, it exploded. Everyone was just going crazy and then as soon as we got off the Metro people just started storming, just running as fast as they could to get to the square to be a part of this historic event,” Colegrove said.
As they covered the election and installation of Pope Francis along with media from all over the world, the story of the Villanova interns who became witnesses to history made headlines too. They were interviewed by their hometown television station, NBC10, along with CNN and The Today Show.
"There was that brief moment of celebrity! That was kinda fun," Hudgins said. "And I think it was really rewarding to see our work go up online and have it get a bunch of likes on Facebook."
All three seniors are hoping their journalism and social media experience at the Vatican will soon help open some doors for that first big job when they graduate.
"The whole experience just perpetuated my passion and love for being in that kind of work," McMonagle said.