While millions worldwide have turned their attention to the Vatican in the wake of former Pope Benedict’s resignation and Pope Francis’ consequent election, four junior students participating in the University’s Vatican Internship Program have not had to look far.
This year, the atmosphere for the internship program in Rome has been distinctly different than in past years as the four students—Danielle McMonagle, Christopher Backofen, Lauren Colegrove and Sean Hudgins—have had the unique experience of witnessing the Papal Conclave firsthand, both through their University-arranged internships and as individuals living within and near the Holy City.
They have garnered international attention due to their exclusive proximity to the situation, appearing in stories run on CNN, The Today Show, NBC 10 and articles in USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Associated Press that highlight the University’s Vatican Internship Program.
The University began this unique partnership in 2004, and now, nine years later, the program has expanded to include intern sites at both Vatican offices and the prestigious Catholic News Service.
Students simultaneously take courses through Arcadia University and L’Universita Roma and complete an Italian language component to ease their transition to both the professional and social culture.
Hudgins and McMonagle, both communication majors with public relations specializations, work in the Pontifical Council for Social Communication Office four days a week and take classes in the afternoon, which are interactive and involve visiting historic Roman locations and archeological sites.
Their internships focus primarily on producing supplementary social media content for the news.va website, a comprehensive site dedicated to all news pertaining to the Vatican.
“Danielle and I predominantly work on the…English Facebook page,” Hudgins said. “We’re finding, editing, repurposing and creating content for the page.”
In addition to creating written content for the Facebook page, they have also been sent on photography assignments and tasked with creating a more interactive web presence to increase audience engagement and participation within the Vatican websites.
Due to their position, they are able to attend papal events with press accreditations and generate content as firsthand witnesses.
“The fact that we are working on social media for something as global as the Vatican is pretty incredible,” McMonagle said.
Colegrove, a communication major with a journalism specialization, has had similar opportunities, which was one of the main reasons she selected to study abroad through this program.
“I’ve been able to contribute to articles written by the journalists there, by providing research and quotes from interviews I’ve done, and have also written a few articles of my own, have taken photographs and conducted interviews, mainly around St. Peter’s Square,” Colegrove said.
Colegrove has gained invaluable experience in professionalism and journalistic procedures by accompanying her boss to conduct interviews with cardinals and Vatican officials as well as writing articles to add to her portfolio.
Like Colegrove, McMonagle is extremely grateful as well to the experience she has gained while working abroad.
“This program has prepared me in a lot of ways,” McMonagle said. “For one, it has challenged me, in the sense that almost all of my coworkers communicate in Italian, with only one other American in the office besides Sean and I. It has taught me a lot about professionalism, adapting to new environments and working with press—for the public relations and journalism fields which I am interested in…these are invaluable lessons.”
Similarly, Backofen, a junior computer science and humanities double major, selected the University and its computing science department as a high school senior because of this internship opportunity.
“I wanted to graduate with as much experience as possible before going into the workforce,” Backofen said.
Backofen is doing just that, as he is currently developing a mobile device application for the Vatican.
“It is designed to consolidate information and services from the Vatican’s websites, many of which do not currently offer a good mobile experience,” Backofen said. “I have designed and am currently coding the app.”
Backofen eventually foresees the app featuring an encyclopedia, virtual storefront and tour guide functionality to add to his already developing application.
“At my internship, I’m not only learning technical information, but I’m learning how to find my own answers through research and experimentation,” he said. “In computer science, any practical experience is vital, as it gives meaning to what you learn in school, drives home those points and builds your institution.”
While the internship experience has been extremely rewarding, Backofen, like Hudgins, McMonagle and Colegrove, have also learned extensively though the resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis. One of their greatest experiences has been witnessing this firsthand.
“I think that we all witness history firsthand every day,” Backofen said. “It’s nice to see how things unfold from within rather than from the outside.”
The atmosphere, while usually busy and lively, has been heightened by events and questions surrounding both the resignation and election of a new pope.
“There’s been a great sense of excitement the past couple weeks, obviously the offices at the Vatican have been extremely busy, but Vatican City as a whole has been filled with energy,” said Hudgins, who was present when Pope Francis’ election was announced in St. Peter’s Square on March 13. “It was awesome to see people from literally all over the world come together and start erupting into cheers.”
Colegrove found out about Pope Benedict’s resignation while she was at the Catholic News Service’s office on Feb. 11.
“Obviously no one had planned for this, but after we confirmed it, I got to run over to the Vatican press conference with our photographer and take pictures, and after, I interviewed people in St. Peter’s Square about their reaction to the news,” Colegrove said.
“I watched Pope Benedict’s final papal audience as a part of press, overlooking St. Peter’s Square along with some of my visiting Villanova professors,” McMonagle said. “I was in St. Peter’s Square during the conclave and watched as the white smoke appeared. I watched as Pope Francis was introduced to the world for the first time and attended his first audience with the press and witnessed his papal installation.”
The interns’ distinctive whirlwind has been captured on nationwide outlets, as while thousands have come from around the globe to say goodbye to retired Pope Benedict and to welcome Pope Francis, the University students offer a close-up and rare perspective.
“To be able to share these experiences with journalists I’ve admired from afar…has been extremely humbling, I am very aware of how fortunate we have been,” McMonagle said. “I will say that standing next to Anderson Cooper on live television and hearing him say my name was pretty cool.”
“Honestly, I’m more excited to see an article I’ve written up on the Catholic News Service website but the interviews have been a lot of fun and everyone we’ve met through them has been incredible,” Colegrove said.
While the four students still have time abroad before the semester concludes, they are already wary of what they will miss, from routines and baristas knowing coffee orders, to Nutella and sweet croissants, to walking through the buzzing St. Peter’s Square, to the newfound independence and internship responsibilities within the Italian culture.
“I would have been more than content to be living in Rome for a semester, to then be offered the chance to intern at the Vatican was an honor,” McMonagle said. “But to be here now, during all of this? Well that has just been incredible—timing really is everything.”