Newbridge priest Fr Ruairi O’Domhnaill had an unexpected surprise during his trip to Rome last week.
The Kildare man’s trip to visit clerical students from Kildare and Leighlin studying for the priesthood in the Italian capital, in his capacity as diocesan vocations director, coincided with the election of Pope Francis last week.
“I have been to Rome a few times - there on holidays and there visiting students - but I never saw Rome like I saw it for this occasion,” Fr Ruairi told the Leader on his return home last weekend.
“There was just a great sense of expectation that something wonderful was about to happen.”
Fr Ruairi booked his flights to Rome before Christmas, and the timing of his visit to coincide with the pomp and ceremony of the conclave last Tuesday and Wednesday was just a happy coincidence.
The Newbridge priest was in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican on Tuesday night when black smoke first emerged from the Sistine Chapel, and returned for the next day’s proceedings.
“The weather on Wednesday as atrocious, but the crowd was so big that you couldn’t put down your umbrellas when it stopped raining, because if it started again there would not be space to put back up the brolly,” he said.
“When the white smoke came out, the whole crowd went quiet for a few seconds, wondering what colour it was. As soon as they saw it was white, the crowd just went wild. Then, of course, we were waiting for an hour to find out who had actually been elected.
“When the cardinal came out and announced the name, no-one had a clue who he was. It filtered back through the crowd that he was from Argentina, and that he was taking the name Francis. And it’s funny, but just by taking the name Francis... Francis has such a universal appeal, that even before he walked out on to the balcony, just by taking that name he won people’s hearts. There was just such a sense of excitement and a real sense of joy in the place.”
Fr Ruairi said that the crowd in St Peter’s Square was predominantly in their twenties, including many Romans but also students from other countries, including Brazilians, Indians, Filipinos and some of the many Americans studying for the priest hood in Rome.
“The South Americans were very excited and there was a group of Franciscans there who were over the moon that he had taken the name Francis.”
Also in the Square were several American students who have connections with Newbridge. There is a link between the Parish and the American College in Rome, and the Kildare town hosts some students from the US on pastoral visits. “There was a certain expectation among them that it might be an American cardinal elected.”
Fr Ruairi admits that news of the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s elevation to the papacy was a surprise to him. “I never heard of his name. When the cardinal said the name Bergoglio, it wasn’t familiar to me at all. It wasn’t one of the names mentioned before the conclave, but I’m not surprised at that. At the end of the day, no-one was privy to how the cardinals were thinking.”
Fr Ruairi thinks it’s a good thing that the office of pope has gone to a candidate from outside of Europe.
“I think, to a certain extent, the church, outside Europe, is portrayed as a colonial imposition on people, so it’s good that South America now has one of their own as Pope.
“There is a great precedent for older Popes doing extraordinary things. One of the biggest surprises of the last century was Pope John XXIII was 76 when he was elected. Everyone thought he would be a stopgap pope but he was a great reformer. This man could be the same. He is certainly starting off like that, and seems to be creating quite a stir with the way he is getting out. He is quite informal and not standing on ceremony.”