Seminarian Hopes Pope Francis Will Heal Religion's 'Crisis Of Faith'

Melissa Block speaks with John Connaughton, a 36-year-old American seminarian studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, about what it's like to witness the transition of popes firsthand.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

These have been heady days for seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. It's where more than 250 American men are studying to be priests, among them, 36-year-old John Connaughton, a deacon from Trumbull, Connecticut. He'll be ordained as a priest in May. Late yesterday afternoon, he made sure to be in St. Peter's Square with fellow seminarians, and he was there when that white smoke streamed out of the Sistine Chapel.

JOHN CONNAUGHTON: It was an amazing experience because in that time period between Pope Benedict's resignation and the election of Francis I, you could feel the absence of the Holy Father.

BLOCK: What does that feel like from your perspective?

CONNAUGHTON: Well, we call him the Holy Father because he is our father. He's our spiritual father. And just like when your father goes away for a trip, you feel his absence. So you could feel it. You could feel it spiritually, and there's a great sense of relief and joy when we did receive Francis I.

BLOCK: Let's talk about that moment when Pope Francis comes out on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. The first words out of his mouth are (foreign language spoken), good evening in Italian.

CONNAUGHTON: Good evening. Yes.

BLOCK: What did that tell you?

CONNAUGHTON: Well, he just came out in a very humble way, and we knew that he was a man who was very humble. And actually, a lot of people didn't recognize him. They didn't know who he was. You did hear pockets of shouting from places around Argentinean flags, but most of the people there were surprised to see who came out.

BLOCK: When you think about the challenges facing the Catholic Church from the shortage of priests to shrinking congregations in the U.S., the child sex abuse scandal, what do you hope the new pope can do to heal things, to make things better?

CONNAUGHTON: I think the biggest crisis right now is this crisis that we have of faith, that people have a hard time trusting the people who lead them, trusting that they are guided by the Lord and, you know, that can be difficult sometimes. But I think our Holy Father, the example that he sets will pay great dividends if he does that faithfully and with love. He took the name Francis. St. Francis is one of the greatest saints of Christian history, and his primary mission was to rebuild the church during a time of great difficulty and turmoil within the church.

BLOCK: Was there a lot of talk at the seminary last night after this choice was made about the name, about what the implications of Pope Francis are and what that means for the church?

CONNAUGHTON: There's a lot of talk about the name that he took. We stayed up late and talked about him. And so it was an inspiring choice to a lot of the guys who were in the house, who heard that he had taken the name of Francis, which is a rather bold move since no one has ever taken that name before, and just talked about what a privilege it is to be here in Rome at this time where the new Holy Father is elected.

BLOCK: Tell me about a moment. After the election of Pope Francis, I gather that Cardinal Timothy Dolan from New York came back to the seminary and was greeted by the seminarians. Tell me what happened.

CONNAUGHTON: Well, everybody loves Cardinal Dolan. He was our former rector. He ran the place for several years in the 1990s. And everybody was in such a joyous mood that when we heard that the cardinals had come back from the conclave, we gathered in one of the hallways there and, as they walked in, started chanting. And when Cardinal Dolan came through, we all chanted Cardinal Dolan. You know, Cardinal Dolan.

(LAUGHTER)

CONNAUGHTON: And...

BLOCK: Was there clapping?

CONNAUGHTON: Of course, yeah. There was clapping, yeah. That's part of the chant. So it was a great moment. You could tell that he was very happy. And Cardinal Dolan being, you know, the personality that he is has a special place in our hearts. So he is the one that we chanted for the loudest.

BLOCK: He is the home team.

CONNAUGHTON: He's the home team. Yeah.

BLOCK: Was any of that chanting sort of, you know, an expression that, really, seminarians may have wanted to see an American pope, a pope from the United States?

CONNAUGHTON: Well, I think, just the fact that we got a pope from the Americas was a huge deal. To have someone from the New World, I think, was particularly exciting for the students there. And we're going to claim him because he's from the Americas and so are we. So he's one of us, and we're his brothers too.

BLOCK: Well, Deacon John, thanks so much for talking with us, appreciate it.

CONNAUGHTON: No. It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: That's Deacon John Connaughton of the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Diocese. He's a seminarian in Rome and will be ordained as a priest in May.

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