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Witnessing the election of a pope: a different kind of ‘Roman Holiday’

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For the Rev. Donald A. Robinson, pastor of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, 850 Arsenal St., witnessing the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope was like something out of a movie, an altogether different kind of “Roman Holiday.”

Father Robinson was traveling with a delegation of 44 north country Catholics through southern Italy.

It was a trip that had been planned more than a year ago to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of St. Anthony’s parish, which was founded in 1913 to serve a sizable Italian settlement in the area. The tour started in Sicily and wound its way up the famous geographical “boot” before travelers landed in Rome on the Tuesday the conclave began.

It was a unexpected turn of events.

“We didn’t know exactly what day it would happen. We kind of lost touch with the news,” Father Robinson said.

On that Wednesday, the group braved inclement weather in the capital city to visit the Coliseum and the ruins of the Roman Forum.

“It poured buckets in Rome. We just got soaked,” Father Robinson said.

Everyone retreated to the hotel to dry off and, though the city was buzzing, no one expected the new pope to be elected soon.

The group’s guide predicted a Thursday or Friday announcement at the earliest.

But shortly after the group arrived back at the hotel, white smoke from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel showed on the television, and Father Robinson, along with a few others from the group, hired a taxi with the help of attendants at the front desk.

It was a cab ride that the passengers won’t soon forget.

Careening down narrow streets of the city, around and through barricades, the driver delivered them to a spot as close to the action as he could get.

Then it was like something out of a movie set, Father Robinson said. “Like the last day of the world,” he described it.

There were cars parked haphazardly everywhere, and people jumping out of buses to join the hundreds and hundreds of people running toward St. Peter’s Square to catch a glimpse of the new pontiff.

Shortly after working their way into the crowds, a dean from the College of Cardinals came out onto the balcony overlooking the square, which was packed with more than 150,000 people, to announce that a pope had been selected.

A short time later, Pope Francis emerged. He greeted the crowd and asked humbly for the people to pray for him.

Father Robinson said the whole square, all 150,000-plus people, quieted for a few moments.

Then the pope gave his blessing and cheers erupted as the sky, which had stopped dropping rain earlier, continued to clear.

After that, people just started drifting out of the square, walking back to the cars, buses, restaurants, cafes and hotels they had left behind.

Father Robinson said there was a mood of reflection in the air.

“Who would have ever imagined that I would be in Rome at the time of the papal conclave?” Father Robinson said. “It’s hard to believe. Hard to describe. It’s a memory I’ll always treasure.”

According to Father Robinson, the fact that Cardinal Bergoglio was a Jesuit and chose Francis as his name “spoke volumes” about him.

“You think of Jesuits as being forward, free-thinking, scholarly people on the forefront of new ideas,” Father Robinson said. “And the fact that he chose the name Francis ... signals a returning to what’s important and essential in our life over the materialism and secularism that our society emphasizes.”

Pope Francis “shows real humility” and “seems to be a pope of the people reminiscent of Pope John Paul II,” Father Robinson said.

After returning to the States on Friday, Father Robinson said four Masses last weekend and found that his parishioners were very interested to hear about his experience.

Someone came up to him after the 4 p.m. Saturday Mass and asked him why he didn’t say anything.

So on Sunday, Father Robinson made it a point to take time after each service to relate his experience to those in attendance.

Reflecting on what Pope Francis’s election means for the Catholic Church, Father Robinson said, “This pope is calling us back to social justice and to reach out to the downtrodden. This pope sees that. He is emphasizing it from the beginning. It’s a good sign. It’s where we should be.”

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