Local resident was in Italy during pope announcement


While most people watched the introduction of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now known as Pope Francis — from their own television, one local resident was fortunate to experience the moment in Italy, just a one-hour flight outside of Rome.

Elena Sanchez, who has lived in East Meadow for 28 years, was in Brindisi, a city on the coast of Italy, when white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel a few hundred miles away. She was traveling with her husband Rudy, who works for the United Nations, and was in Italy for a conference.

She was in her hotel, mixed with international and local residents, when the historic moment occurred. “When the moment the smoke went up, people started cheering and clapping,” said Sanchez. “It was really, really great.”

Sanchez works in Merrick, where she has a private practice focusing on marriage and family therapy. She formerly worked as a regional director in the Diocese of Rockville Centre for 10 years, and has been to St. Peter’s Square five times.

“I was very tempted to take that flight back to Rome and spend a day or two,” said Sanchez, but said she decided against it because she knew the crowd would be “enormous.”

Sanchez recounted a prior experience in St. Peter’s Square, when she attended mass on Palm Sunday in the mid-1990s, when Pope John Paul II held the papacy. She arrived three hours early to obtain a seat near the aisle to catch a glimpse of the Popemobile.

There were “Thousands upon thousands of people,” recalled Sanchez. “And the minute he comes in the square, you feel the whole place — it’s like a fire. The people go crazy.”

When Pope John Paul II rode past her section, she said, “You can barely see the top of the pope’s head. So that’s what affected me in terms of not going [this time.]”

But Sanchez, who is Italian-American and speaks some Italian, said she spent the rest of her trip surveying the local reaction to the new pope. “It was a very mixed review,” she said, adding that older Italians were pleased that Pope Francis comes from Italian descent.

But she added, “The running thread of people’s reactions was a feeling of hope. While this pope may have a similar commentary and position [as Pope Benedict XVI]… even from his behavior as a Cardinal, he already appears to be more humble and approachable, and more of a John Paul type and style.”