Monsignor John Myler, the spokesman for the Diocese of Belleville, considers himself lucky to have been able to visit the Vatican last month during the final days of Pope Benedict XVI as leader of the Catholic Church.
"The mood in Rome reminded me of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter," Myler said, after his return to the states.
"There was a certain sadness, but also the feeling that we are on the verge of Easter joy."
That may have been part of Benedict's reason's for making his announcement during Lent, the solemn season of preparation for Easter, explained Myler, the rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville.
He and Monsignor Daniel J. Jurek, of St. Joseph's Church in Prairie du Rocher, traveled to Rome from Feb. 16-24. The trip was planned for November but was delayed until two days after Ash Wednesday, Myler said.
"As it turned out, it really was a blessing to be at the Vatican during the penultimate week of Benedict XVI," Myler said.
Jurek agreed. "You don't see this too often -- a new pope," he said. "Normally they get in and they last forever and forever. So this is something new to us."
They resided in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Latin for St. Martha's House, the large but not luxurious apartments where the cardinals who make up the conclave will stay as they prepare to elect the new pope. The rooms were named after St. Martha, because of the hospitality she showed to Jesus, Myler said.
"I knew that when I left the room and went to the airport, that the next person in that room would be one of 115 cardinals," Myler said.
Benedict announced Feb. 11 that he would resign at the end of the month, the first pope to do so in about 600 years. Thursday was his final day as pope; his new title is pope emeritus.
Myler said the Vatican was bustling with visitors eager to see the pope one last time. The midday Sunday prayers Benedict led usually welcomed 3,000 to 5,000 visitors. But when Myler and Jurek were there, the Piazza San Pietro, or St. Peter's Square, was filled with more than 100,000 people.
"For Pete's sake, that Piazza was filled with people," Jurek said. "It's nice that we can say thank you to a man before he dies."
Their travels coincided with the big winter storm that hit the Midwest and closed most metro-east schools for two days.
"I checked the News-Democrat every morning for the weather and there was the, of course, the sleet and the snow and the ice back here," Myler said. "It was 55 or 60 degrees every day (in Rome), not a single drop of rain."
Jurek said they enjoyed the same aspects of Rome as other tourists: They walked, they prayed, and they shopped.
Plus, they ate lots of delicious Italian food. Jurek especially liked afternoon snacks of gelato, an Italian ice-cream like dessert flavored with nuts, fruit or chocolate.
As the pair walked around in their Roman collars, Jurek said lots of people stopped to ask them questions. "We speak in English; they speak in Italian," he said. "But hand signals help a lot. It was a great time, it really was."
When asked to speculate about the next pope, Myler said it will be up to the cardinals to decide.
"I would say that it would be wide open to the man who is most Christ-like, able to lead and govern and be a man of Christian unity," Myler said. "Whether he will be from North America or South America or Europe or Asia or Australia or Africa, I have no idea. The 115 cardinals will get to know each other and will very prayerfully choose."
Once the conclave begins it could take just one day or up to several days before the next pope is selected, Myler said.
Benedict was elected in two days in 2005.
When asked about the reason for the pope's retirement, Myler said he thought the pope was honest about his reason's for stepping down.
"I think, as the pope said, that the task of being the universal pastor of the Catholic Church required more vigor and more life than he, at his age and his health, is able to give," Myler said. "That, I think, we take the man at his word."
About potential scandal or other rumors of blackmail, Myler said:
"Popes throughout history have been dealing with wars, scandal and great moments of martyrdom or prosecution of the Church," Myler said. "He does not back away from that ... He hopes that the task will be taken up by someone who is younger, stronger, healthier.
"There have been times of persecution, times of growth, times of war, times of peace," he continued. "This is human history that the Church lives in ... It's the pope's own health."
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at email@example.com or 618-239-2460.