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In Rome with the new pope: Emory student has front-row view

Cardinals gather on the  balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica after election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

Emory student Grace Mackowiak may have known when she signed up for study abroad in Italy this semester that she would be living close to the Vatican, but she didn't foresee having a front-row seat to history, with the first papal resignation in hundreds of years and the election this week of Pope Francis I.

"I am lucky to be here through this process," says Mackowiak, a sophomore from St. Louis minoring in Catholic studies.  She says the public mood was conflicted when Pope Benedict XVI made his surprise resignation announcement: "Some don't care, some argued in cafes, others were distraught. My grandma called me, saying, 'Grace, you've been in Rome for a week and the pope resigns—what did you do?'"

Mackowiak says she has "the privilege of walking through Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter's Square) on the way to school and back every day." (It was fun to see whether Pope Benedict had his light on at night, she reports.)

Although she didn't notice an immediate increase in people flocking to the city, Mackowiak did document the unusually large crowd at Pope Benedict's final Ash Wednesday service—mostly priests and nuns. "I live in St. Louis, so I'm used to seeing a lot, but whoa, there were so many! It was comforting somehow."

One of Mackowiak's favorite pastimes on her morning walk through the square was what she calls "Cardinal-blocking."

"As I walked through San Pietro on my way back from school, I saw a cardinal who was walking across the square become engulfed in a swam of photographers," she says. "So whenever I saw I cardinal in the same situation, I tried to walk closely to him at an angle where I could block as many of the unsolicited photos as possible.

"Sometimes I even threw in a sharp 'Basta!' [Enough!] to the obnoxious reporters," she says.  "I started doing it because so many of the cardinals looked very tired, understandably, and I figured the last thing they need is paparazzi and flashing lights three feet from their face."

As the papal conclave got underway, local priests and professors told Mackowiak they expected this to be a brief conclave. "For the pope, there is so much to do and so little time to spare," she says of the general attitude. "As I walked to the piazza tonight [the night of the announcement], I was certain that tonight we would have a new pope."

So Mackowiak was not surprised when "the white smoke came out of the pipe, everyone yelled and ran to the window where the pope would be introduced an hour later."

The people on the piazza were from everywhere, says Mackowiak, "but it was somewhat difficult to see banners and flags because of all the umbrellas. I did see a few flags from Argentina, and at least three American flags waving in front of the crowd."

As the new pope's name was announced, Mackowiak was surrounded mostly by Italians, "who reacted immediately with a loud, collective 'VIVA FRANCESCO!'" Afterwards, she heard more supportive comments, cheers and some surprise at the name choice, one of several firsts describing Pope Francis I.

Pope Francis I: Will there be more firsts to come?

Besides being the first Latin American, the new pope is the first Jesuit ever elected, a somewhat encouraging sign to Eugene Bianchi, professor emeritus of religion at Emory, former Jesuit and co-author of a book on American Jesuits.

"I'm glad a Jesuit was chosen," says Bianchi who found reassurance in former Cardinal Bergoglio's work with the poor. He said the new pope's stance on a wide range of social issues, such as gay marriage and ordination of women, is known to be conservative, so there likely won't be much change there.

Yet Bianchi is "hoping he has a little bomb up his sleeve like Angelo Roncalli, who was [Pope] John XXIII, who was also elected pope very late and threw the bomb and started Vatican II."

Although Bianchi doesn't expect Francis I to start Vatican III, he admits "it would be great if he got lay people, women, other people to come to Rome with a few top notch organizational reform people from business or government to re-do the whole curia, that absolute monarchy that they're dragging along from the Middle Ages. It needs to be rethought."

Bianchi agrees that Vatican reform may be the way forward for other church-wide reforms. "When you look at the picture, you have a 115 old men closeting themselves away to elect a new pope. Where are the laypeople, where are the women?  There's no participation of the great majority of Catholics at that level."

To Bianchi, decentralizing the church somewhat should be a top priority, "because it's so centered in the Vatican, which doesn't make sense in the 21st century."

Mackowiak's video from the night that Pope Francis I was appointed:

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