The historic farewell by Pope Benedict last month and this week’s election of his successor have been deeply moving experiences for a Mechanicville woman who was in St. Peter’s Square during both.
“I loved being there. I was a part of something the whole world was viewing,” Joelle DiDomenico, a 21-year-old junior at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., said from Rome.
She managed to be within feet of the “popemobile” during Pope Benedict’s final public appearance in the Vatican on Feb. 28, then be in the square again when the white smoke marking Pope Francis’ election appeared Wednesday evening. She also saw the debut appearance as pope of Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, the first pontiff from the Americas.
“Thirty seconds after the smoke went up and after we jumped and yelled for joy, the hundreds of people raced to be closer to the basilica,” DiDomenico wrote in an email Friday.
Assumption College opened a Rome campus this year, and DiDomenico is there for the semester. As a Catholic school, it has the ability to get students tickets to be in St. Peter’s Square, where history was being made.
DiDomenico, the daughter of Joseph and Andrea DiDomenico, is studying sociology. The 2010 Mechanicville High School graduate is one of seven Assumption students in the first group to study at the Rome campus.
“She really got caught up in the emotions of what’s going on,” said her mother, a lawyer whose office is in Halfmoon.
On Feb. 28, she was able to get a photo of Pope Benedict as he passed just a few feet away.
It wasn’t until she got to St. Peter’s Square that she realized what a big deal the appearance was, with a huge and worshipful crowd awaiting the last appearance of the first pope to resign in 600 years. “I was speechless,” she said.
“The pope drove right past us,” she continued. “As soon as he came out in his ‘popemobile’ the whole audience was on their feet chanting ‘viva Il papa.’ I could not believe how many people’s lives this man impacted. There were so many emotions and cheers for this one man it was outstanding.”
The pope addressed the crowd in 11 or 12 languages, she said, though she had the impression he seemed ill.
“Again, I can’t express to you the feeling I had when I heard all the noise and chanting,” she wrote. “Also, people waved flags from all over the world to show their love for this man. I couldn’t believe how many people showed up from all over the world. I was deeply moved by this experience and am so glad I was a part of this historical moment.”
Then, last Wednesday, she said she wasn’t planning to go down to the square where crowds awaited word of the College of Cardinals’ decision because the weather was so cold and rainy. But then she changed her mind and went with her roommate.
“We went down and as soon as I stepped into the square I was overwhelmed by how many people were there standing in the pouring rain,” she wrote.
The wait wasn’t long, and proved worth it.
“We stood there for about 35 minutes waiting for the smoke, pushing through people with giant umbrellas to make sure the chimney was in plain view. While they had [video] screens showing the smoke, I had to witness it with my own eyes,” she wrote.
When smoke finally appeared there was confusion about its color, as has often happened during papal elections in the past.
“When the smoke went up it went from white to black to white. I wish words could mimic how the crowd reacted. It was a wave of happiness to disappointment to extreme cheering and a rush of excitement when the crowd was sure the smoke was white,” she said. “It was a moment I’ll never forget. So many people anticipated this moment and they were so happy to finally have a ‘papa’ again.”
When the newly elected Pope Francis appeared for the first time in public, DiDomenico and her roommate were about 20 rows back from the basilica. The wait had been about an hour.
“Finally when the lights went on, the cardinals streamed out of the surrounding balconies and Francis revealed himself. Again the roar of cheering ‘viva Il papa’ occurred and the Catholic persons of the world could breathe again now that they had their new pope. This moment was again incredible, the square was so packed.”
Just this past weekend, DiDomenico had been to Assisi, the village in the Umbrian mountains that was the birthplace of Saint Francis, from whom the new pope has drawn his name.
“We learned all about Francis’ life which I’m grateful I did because now I know exactly who this new pope is named after and how he took the name of such a memorable and influential saint,” DiDomenico wrote.
She has also been to the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals conducted their deliberations. She called it “breathtaking, one of my favorite places I’ve been to.”
DiDomenico is scheduled to return to Mechanicville in May. She attends All Saints on the Hudson Church in Mechanicville.