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Diocese of Wilmington priests Fathers James Kirk and John Klevence recall St. Peter’s Square on day of Pope Benedict XVI election

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Father James Kirk, left, and Father John Klevence, traveled together to the Vatican in 2005 to witness the introduction of Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s not every day that you get to see a pope elected.

Everyone knows black smoke signals more work needs to be done by cardinals in conclave. White smoke means we have a new pope.

Fathers James Kirk and John Klevence of the Diocese of Wilmington saw some of both at the gathering of cardinals after the death of St. Pope John Paul II on the day of the introduction of Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

The two priests had made what could be described as a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel to Rome in April 2005 for the conclave to elect a new pope. Father Klevence, who was at the time pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Ocean City, Md., and Father Kirk, then pastor of Church of Church of the Holy Child in Wilmington, decided on a Friday that they wanted to go and had made the arrangements by Monday.

Pope Benedict XVI appears on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica after his election April 19, 2005. Pope Benedict died Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 95 in his residence at the Vatican.(CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

“It was pandemonium,” said Father Klevence, current pastor of St. Ann in Bethany Beach, describing the square after the big news was revealed.

“It was a great experience, just such a joyful moment,” he said. “People from all over the world, really united in the square. People speaking different languages. It wasn’t just the church, but so much more, with young people experiencing so much joy. It felt like we were part of something so much bigger.”

Father Kirk, currently pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Wilmington, said he was friends with people who operated a hotel near the Vatican, but they discouraged him from coming, saying mobs of people were pouring in.

“It all worked out,” Father Kirk said. “It was really fun. It was just a wonderful experience. I have great admiration for Pope Benedict. I think he will go down in history as a really fine pope. He’ll be remembered as a kind and merciful pope.”

Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims from a cruiser as he arrives on the Rhine River for World Youth Day in this Aug. 18, 2005, file photo. The Cologne cathedral is seen in the background. (OSV News photo/Catholic Press Photo, pool)

While Pope Francis is the sitting pope after the unusual development of Pope Benedict’s retirement, there will be no papal conclave after the death of Pope Benedict. Both local priests said one pope presiding over the funeral of another will be historic.

“It will be really interesting,” Father Kirk said.

It was April 19, 2005, when German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected and presented as Pope Benedict XVI. Father Klevence recalled ballots twice ending with black smoke, indicating the closed conclave of cardinals from around the world would continue deliberating.

Father Klevence remembers the news coverage and the throngs of excited people as the new pope was announced following white plumes.

“Everyone was cheering. It was a raucous scene. We saw a piece of history.”

A few years later, Father Klevence was able to attend a private audience with Pope Benedict and shook the pope’s hand. Separately, Father Kirk had the same experience.

“No. 1, he was a great theologian,” Father Klevence said. “He was devoted to the church, loved the church, and as he said, ‘a worker in the vineyard.’”

Both Fathers Klevence and Kirk said they would not expect to experience a papal conclave again, but neither would turn down the opportunity.

“I would gladly repeat it,” Father Kirk said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but you never know. We had a great time.”