The tension was nearly palpable as a group of young Catholics awaited any sign of white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. But they were not among the masses gathered at the Vatican; they were instead huddled around a TV screen in the University of South Dakota’s Newman Center.
Sophomore Amber Ewers was monitoring the color of the smoke from the morning in her dorm room to speed walking from her afternoon class March 13 to just make it in time to see at the Newman Center the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would soon enough exist under the moniker Pope Francis.
She said as soon as the announcement was made, students flooded the Newman Center.
“This was a momentous election, because the Church is at a critical point with its presence and influence in the world,” said Ewers. “When Pope Francis was announced, it was incredible to see students so alive to their faith, and so anxious to learn more about the new Pope.”
First-year Mickel Goepferich said the turnout at the Newman Center for the announcement of the Pope is a result of the tightknit community carved out for Catholic students at USD.
“I see students, including myself, who came to school and tried to figure out where they fit in,” Goepferich said. “A good number of us found a way to expand our relationship with God through the center, which is why the selection (of the Pope) was so crucial.”
Senior Trevor Watson, who has been active with Newman Center activities since he entered USD as a first-year, said he has seen an increase of student involvement with the Catholic Church on campus.
“More students seemed to be really excited, really eager to learn who would be elected than I expected would care,” he said.
While Watson watched the white smoke pour out from his TV at home, Watson said student interest could have been up not just because of the Catholic influence on campus, but also because of the political implications and large-scale media coverage of the selection.
Though first-year Todd Schmidt did not know who Bergoglio was when his name was first announced, he said that did not affect his excitement to find out the Church’s “new spiritual leader.”
Schmidt said he admires the humble lifestyle Pope Francis lived in Argentina of “not lavishing of worldly benefits” associated with as a cardinal in a continent that accounts for 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.
As to the suggested increase of USD students interested in the Papal results, Sioux Falls Bishop Paul Swain said during a visit to campus March 14 that in just the six years he has spent in the state, he has seen an increase of students invested in their faith through the “safe environment” provided at the Newman Center.
Swain, who watched the announcement of the new Pope on TV along with a group of other regional bishops, said he was surprised by the pick because of Pope Francis’ older age, and also by the length of the election process.
“I hadn’t heard of him before, so my first questions was ‘Who?’ when it was announced,” Swain said. “I also didn’t think (the election) was going to take as long as it did to elect the Pope, but I am encouraged to see so many young people on campus excited about the announcement.”