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Mt. Pleasant man visits Vatican prior to election of Pope Francis I

Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The first time Ryan Wagner stepped inside St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City last June, he said the Roman Catholic Church's cavernous place of worship had the feel of a true tourist's destination.

“It was very crowded, and it felt like we were kind of being rushed along, pushed along to the next thing,” said Wagner, 18, of Mt. Pleasant.

A 2012 Mt. Pleasant Area graduate, Wagner traveled to the city at that time with nine of his fellow classmates as part of a 10-day trip to Europe led by Gloria McClain, Mt. Pleasant Area's French teacher and language department chairwoman.

However, Wagner said the atmosphere inside the basilica — one of the world's largest churches — felt entirely different when he returned there during a recent pilgrimage he took with the campus ministry at St. Vincent College.

“It was more quiet ... it seemed like people had a little more respect for their surroundings,” said Wagner, who is a freshman studying marketing at the college in Unity.

Such a palpable feeling of reverence seemed to be inspired, Wagner said, by the Feb. 28 resignation of Pope Benedict XVI — the first pontiff to step down in six centuries.

Argentine Jorge Bergoglio, 76, was elected pope Wednesday and chose the papal name Francis, becoming first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium.

The 115 cardinal electors overcame deep divisions to select Pope Francis I — the 266th pontiff — during a remarkably fast, five-ballot Papal conclave that began Tuesday.

The campus ministry, led by the Rev. Killian Loch, O.S.B., arrived in Rome on Feb. 29 — the morning after Pope Benedict began his retirement.

The group returned home last weekend, prior to the commencement of the conclave.

Wagner and Loch reflected wistfully on being in Vatican City just prior to such a historic occasion.

“I just remember there being a lot of media and press, there was a lot more attention on when the conclave was going to begin and there was a lot of speculation about who was going to be the new Pope,” Wagner said.

During the two-week trip, Wagner and 12 other St. Vincent students received a private guided tour of the Vatican, tours of Pompeii, Monte Cassino, Subiaco and Assisi, and attended Mass at the Patron Saints of Europe Chapel.

“Being there during the interim, there was a noticeable sense of reverent expectation for a new Pope,” Loch said. “I agree with Ryan's observation about the atmosphere in the Vatican.”

Inside the Sistine Chapel, Loch said, there was the customary aura of awe as people gazed at Renaissance artist Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling. Such a feeling was accompanied by the added reverence at knowing the conclave was to meet there, he said.

Crowds grew larger in St. Peter's Square on March 9 as the St. Vincent group prepared to depart, cheering as Vatican workers installed a rust-colored chimney on the Sistine Chapel's terracotta-tiled roof.

That chimney played a significant role during the conclave: After the cardinals voted in favor the new pontiff, their ballots were burned and the resulting white smoke signified his election.

The Vatican sought to quash speculation that divisions among cardinals could drag out the conclave to elect the next pope.

“I think it's a process that can be carried out in a few days without much difficulty,” spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters prior to the commencement of the conclave.

A two-thirds majority, or 77 votes, was required to select the new pope.

“Our guide pointed out to us where the stove would soon be in which the ballots are burned and the window through which the chimney would be installed,” Loch said. “She pointed out the room of tears where the newly elected pope would be taken and white Papal cassocks in several sizes would be waiting for him.”

Looking stunned, Francis — the longtime archbishop of Buenos Aires — shyly waved to the crowd of tens of thousands of people who gathered in St. Peter's Square, marveling that the cardinals needed to look to “the end of the earth” to find a bishop of Rome.

“Brothers and sisters, good evening,” Francis said to wild cheers in his first public remarks as pontiff. “You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth. Thank you for the welcome.”

Wagner was baptized into Visitation Roman Catholic Church in the borough and attended CCD classes there during his youth. Though he said he drifted from his faith during his adolescence, he said he felt drawn to St. Vincent.

“St. Vincent is very strong in its Benedictine values,” he said. “The excursions we went on during this trip, and the historical time in which we went, deepened my understanding and respect for the Catholic Church and those values.”

Wagner said he wants a church “that will strengthen my faith, not dictate what I should and should not do. I think the Catholic Church for today's society is a little bit strict.”

Wagner also expressed hope that the new pope “uses his powers (to) really make a difference in the world.”

Like other Jesuit intellectuals, Francis has focused on social outreach. Catholics are still buzzing over his speech last year accusing fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

In a lifetime of teaching and leading priests in Latin America, which has the largest share of the world's Catholics, Francis has also shown a keen political sensibility as well as the kind of self-effacing humility that fellow cardinals value highly, according to his official biographer, Sergio Rubin.

He showed that humility on Wednesday, saying that before he blessed the crowd he wanted their prayers for him and bowed his head.

“Good night, and have a good rest,” he said before going back into the palace.

Wagner's mother, Joan Wagner, expressed pride in her son's drive to explore the world, particularly a site in the midst of such a significant happening.

“We have such a global culture and, at age 18, he's been able to see the big picture first-hand,” she said. “I think, as the years go by, he will appreciate the fact that he was in Rome at such a historic time more and more.”

A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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