What a time to be in Rome! As the world was gripped by the resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis, I found myself not just a close observer of these historic events but living them from their very centre.

On December 31st last year I was selected to serve as Deacon for Pope Benedict at First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. I knelt next to him in front of the Blessed Sacrament, exposed on the high altar of St Peter’s and found myself profoundly moved to pray for the entire Church especially where she is suffering the most. This privilege of praying with Benedict increased my own sense of personal closeness to the Holy Father.

I felt the shock of Benedict’s resignation very keenly as I was still basking in the afterglow of praying with him. We were in class at the John Paul II Institute and our head of school came in and made the announcement, breaking down into tears as he did so. The rest of the day everyone on campus was in a daze, trying to comprehend the first Papal resignation in six hundred years. What followed was a long period of farewell and spiritual preparation for a new Pope.

As a deacon at the North American College I was able to get a ticket to distribute ashes at Benedict’s final public Mass on Ash Wednesday. I was moved by how he constantly deflected attention from himself, indeed Ash Wednesday is the most low-key of all the public Papal liturgies. It was as though he wanted to slip quietly away, but not before we gave him a thunderous standing ovation in the basilica, which Benedict barely managed to put an end to!

Pope Benedict’s final Angelus and Audience were beautiful but sad occasions. I was able to attend both events with a number of the other Aussies studying in Rome. We were moved by his candidness, speaking of how at times it felt as though the Lord was sleeping while the barque of Peter was being tossed in the storm. Our own unease at the prospect of losing Benedict was calmed somewhat by his reassurance that the Church was always Christ’s and he does not abandon her.

Upon Benedict’s departure by helicopter for Castel Gandolfo we all turned with an enthralling expectation to the conclave. Living at the Pontifical North American College we felt we had our fingers on the conclave’s very pulse. Nine of the eleven American Cardinals stayed with us during the general congregations. We would bump into them in the lift, in the halls, and even on the athletics track! The world’s media would invade the college everyday to interview the Cardinals and many of us students. Everywhere you turned there were camera crews and journalists. The global media obsession with the election served as a potent reminder of the continued relevance of the Church, particularly in the First World.

The night of Wednesday March 13th was the most exciting night of my life. We were standing in the pouring rain amidst a sea of umbrellas. I was not expecting a result that evening but something happened that made me change my mind. The Australian students had all arrived separately but in the midst of the huge crowd we all randomly ran into each other in the space of five minutes. It was as though the Guardian Angels put us all together so we could be united in this amazing experience. I began to think, “We may get a result!”
Sure enough the white smoke billowed from the chimney thirty minutes later. The square simply went nuts! I was leaping and yelling and thinking in delirious disbelief “They’ve done it! We’ve got a Pope!”

One cannot describe that period of anticipation between the white smoke and Francis’ appearance on the balcony. I’ve never felt so proud or excited to be Catholic. You can never be prepared to hear the words “Habemus papam” live. When Cardinal Tauran pronounced those words it stirred the depths of the vast crowd’s Catholic soul. We were complete: we had Peter again.

My own sense of closeness to the new Holy Father was to be made tangible in the most profound way. By some plan known only to God I was selected to serve as deacon for my second Papal liturgy in three months. At Pope Francis’ Mass of installation on March 19th I was given the extraordinary task of being a “Diacono amministrante.” This meant my job was to descend into the confessio of St Peter’s basilica with Pope Francis and personally retrieve the Fisherman’s ring, carry it in procession out into the piazza and then with Cardinal Sodano, present it to the Holy Father at the beginning of Mass.

I was almost overwhelmed by the significance of the task. To stand in the tomb of St Peter, to pray with his new successor and then to present that ancient symbol of papal authority to him was a joy too great for words. I couldn’t absorb all I was being given. I just tried to give thanks and offer it back to Our Lord.

After Mass, those of us who had assisted got to witness the meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Having studied the crusades at university, seeing these two men embrace with such warmth was a privilege and a moment of great hope for our relations with the Orthodox.

Since those halcyon days of December to March my mind has turned to my own priestly ordination in Sydney on July 6. I approach Our Lord’s altar with an understanding and a love for the Church One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic like never before. I pray I will never lose the universal vision I have gained in Rome.

Rev Daniel McCaughan studied at the Pontifical North American College. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney on 6 July 2013 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.