PHILADELPHIA – Talk about a baptism by fire: On the first day of Lauren Colegrove's journalism internship at Catholic News Service in Rome, the pope announced his resignation.
The Villanova University junior thought she'd spend her first day filling out paperwork and undergoing orientation. Instead, she ran over to the Vatican Press Office to attend a news conference and later conducted interviews in St. Peter's Square.
"It's pretty hard to have a more exciting first day of work than that," Colegrove said in an email interview.
Colegrove, originally from Tampa, Fla., is among four Villanova University students working this semester at the Vatican. It's an already uncommon internship that has taken on a whole new dimension with the historic departure of Pope Benedict XVI and the start of a papal conclave to choose his successor.
Previous interns from Villanova, a private Catholic university near Philadelphia, have shot videos for the Vatican's YouTube channel, created 360-degree virtual tours of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, and performed research that led to the first papal tweet in December.
"Not every tourist can walk up and say, 'I'd like to go behind the wall of the Vatican and check out what's happening,'" said Villanova computer science professor Robert Beck, who helps select the students who go abroad. "The interns are given the ability to do that."
In addition to Colegrove's reporting, the university this year has a computer science student working on a Vatican mobile app at the Internet Office of the Holy See and two others interning at the Pontifical Council for Social Communication.
The council administers the Vatican's main news portal, www.news.va, and its companion Facebook page. Communications interns Danielle McMonagle and Sean Hudgins have been creating and curating content for the latter website since last month, including taking photos of Benedict's last audience in St. Peter's Square.
"It was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced, not only as an intern but just in general being there with thousands of people from all over the world," McMonagle, a junior from Moorestown, N.J., wrote in an email.
Thaddeus Jones, a council official and the interns' supervisor, said the world moves so quickly that "it's more important than ever" to draw on students' knowledge of multimedia and digital social platforms to help the church communicate in the 21st century.
But with the breaking news of the pope's departure and subsequent conclave, which began Tuesday with the College of Cardinals failing to choose a new pope on their first vote, there is less time for students to research emerging technologies and strategies, as previous interns have done, he said.
"It's kind of like all hands on deck right now, rather than study trends and things," Jones said in a phone interview.
Villanova's program started in 2003 with computer science students working in the Vatican's Internet Office to help modernize the church. By 2008, communications students were being placed at the Pontifical Council for Social Communication.
Last semester, intern Andrew Jadick helped the church prepare for a tweeting pope by researching how other major world figures use their Twitter accounts. Jadick was among those who stood by the pope Dec. 12 when he tweeted for the first time, and got to shake the pontiff's hand.
After Benedict stepped down Feb. 28, the church deleted, but archived, all of his tweets — the account reads "Sede Vacante," or "Seat Vacant." Jadick hopes the pope's successor will also take advantage of Twitter because a social media presence can help Catholics feel more connected to their leader.
"It would be a shame if he doesn't want to use it," said Jadick, who is now back on campus.
Meanwhile, McMonagle is among the millions awaiting the telltale white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. She hopes to capture an image of the symbol of a new pontiff being elected.
"To have the opportunity to work as an intern here at the Vatican was already an honor," McMonagle said, "but to be doing so now at this historic time is simply incredible."
Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson