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A front row seat to history in the making

Emily Holtz, right, was in St. Peter's Square when Pope Francis was introduced to the world.

When Emily Holtz first started looking into studying abroad, she wanted to study in Spain. But things didn't work out and so she chose Rome.

It was a most fortuitous choice, because the Rosemount native, a junior at the University of Notre Dame, has had a front seat to history in the making. Holtz was in St. Peter's Square during the Papal Conclave and personally witnessed the white smoke rise that announced Pope Francis had been selected to lead the Catholic Church.

"It was unreal," said Holtz of the experience.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was selected to be the 266th pope March 13. Bergoglio is the first Latin American pope to lead the church and the first Jesuit priest. He chose the name Pope Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.

Holtz missed two days of class to attend Conclave but she has no regrets. She described Rome as a mad house that day.

"It was just ridiculous," said Holtz.

The weather in Italy during the two days of Conclave was cold and rainy. Waiting to see the smoke raise from the Sistine Chapel, Holtz spent hours standing wet and cold. On the first day only black smoke rose from the stack, signifying no one had been chosen. Holtz said even seeing the black smoke was exciting.

"No one was expecting white smoke the first day, but it was incredible to be there," said Holtz.

White smoke signifies a new pope had been chosen. It followed the next evening, March 13. Following the rise of the smoke, Holtz said there was a lot of screaming and shoving to get closer to the balcony to see the new pope when he emerged. All the church bells in Rome were ringing, including the Bells of St. Peter.

"Everyone was screaming. It was so loud. It was just amazing for me to see it all," said Holtz.

Holtz said those gathered in the square didn't know who had been selected right away. Slowly, rumors started leaking into the crowd that it was someone from Latin America and a Jesuit. Eventually, Pope Francis appeared on the balcony.

"It was really cool.... The first thing he did was ask us to pray," said Holtz.

Holtz attended several masses given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and said Francis seemed different right away. She said he hasn't done many of the Papal norms and he takes time to connect with people.

"People seemed to like him right away. He has quite the presence," said Holtz.

For example after Palm Sunday Mass, the Pope walked through the crowd talking with people.

"He must have kissed 30 babies.... He's really accessible," said Holtz.

Holtz is studying in Rome from January through May. She will return to Rosemount this summer to do an internship. She's majoring in math and theology.

A lifelong Catholic -- she's an alumnus of St. Joseph School -- has made the experience that much more powerful. Her experience being in a country rich in Catholic history, has stoked her interest in theology. She also has enjoyed learning Italian.

"Going to Mass has been really helpful," said Holtz of learning the language.

Going into her senior year, Holtz is not sure what she plans to do in the future. For the time being, though, she's just enjoying her time in Rome.

"I love it all. It's such a totally different life here and it's my couple months of time to be in the square. It's amazing to be a witness to all of this," said Holtz.

To follow Holtz visit her blog at

Emily Zimmer
Emily Zimmer has worked as a staff writer for the Rosemount Town Pages since 2007. She has a degree in journalism from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Outside of work, Emily enjoys running, reading and gardening. You can follow Emily's gardening adventures at the Areavoices blog East of Weedin'
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