Seminarians from Saint Francis de Sales Seminary visit Norcia, the Italian community that is home to the Monastery of St. Benedict. The seminarians’ pilgrimage became historic when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away and lay in state while they were in Italy. (Photo courtesy of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary)

Some local priests and seminarians had a front-row seat to history when they happened to be in Rome when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away Dec. 31.

Nine priests and 44 seminarians from Saint Francis de Sales Seminary visited Rome on a pilgrimage from Dec. 29 to Jan. 6 — a pilgrimage planned many, many months in advance.

“It was very historic, just being there,” said Fr. Robert J. Kroll, S.J., director of spiritual formation at the seminary. “It certainly was an amazing week.”

“I know that’s something that’s going to stick with me for the rest of my life,” said Charles Luke, a third-year seminarian on the pilgrimage.

Pope Benedict, who retired in 2013 after serving as pope for nearly eight years, laid in state at St. Peter’s Basilica from Jan. 2-4, and his funeral was Jan. 5.

Fr. John P. Mitchell, a faculty member at both Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, was present in Rome as a college student for Pope Benedict’s election, as a seminarian when he retired and again as a priest for his funeral.

Fr. Mitchell was struck by the large number of priests who attended the funeral.

“When the camera panned out, it looked like almost a third of the crowd was composed of concelebrating priests. That made sense to me, since he had shown great paternal love for priests and seminarians, encouraging us above all in his writings and in the invitation to dive deep in our formation with the mind of the Church,” Fr. Mitchell said.

The death of Pope Benedict had a tremendous impact on the seminarian pilgrimage.

“I was a kid when he was elected,” Luke said, but he remembers his first impression of Rome coming from news coverage of the traditional ballot-burning smoke signaling the selection of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope. Luke grew up in Sheboygan at Holy Name of Jesus Parish.

Fr. Justin J. Kizewski, director of intellectual formation at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, on the other hand, was attending the seminary in Rome in 2005 when Pope John Paul II passed away and Pope Benedict was selected. Fr. Kizewski was pursuing a doctorate degree in Rome when Benedict announced his retirement in 2013.

Fr. Kizewski was on the Saint Francis de Sales Seminary pilgrimage, so it became his second time paying his respects to a pope lying in state at St. Peter’s Basilica.

“It was a really fascinating, special time to be in Rome,” he said.

Members of the pilgrimage group had heard before they left Wisconsin that 95-year-old Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was in ill health. They found out about his passing while on a bus due to arrive 20 minutes later at Norcia, the birthplace of Pope Benedict’s namesake, St. Benedict.

“That alone was tremendously powerful,” Luke said, and it was powerful to pray a rosary together at that site for the repose of Pope Benedict’s soul upon their arrival.

Fr. Kroll, who said it was his third visit to Rome, said a “very special” time for the pilgrimage priests was the opportunity to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on Jan. 1. The seminarians also attended the Mass.

On Jan. 2, the group arose at 5 a.m., the first day the pope laid in state, to arrive at St. Peter’s Basilica before most of the about 65,000 other people who came to pay their respects that day.

The pilgrims waited an hour or two before they prayerfully approached the pope’s body for the six seconds or so permitted. “Getting closer to his body was moving,” Fr. Kroll said, especially surrounded by all of the statues, murals and other beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica. “It’s just very impressive in its grandeur.”

“The week was filled with a lot of surprises,” Fr. Kroll said.

On Jan. 3, another surprise was attending a Requiem Mass celebrated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan at the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter in the basilica near where Pope Benedict was laying in state. The Saint Francis de Sales Seminary pilgrims found out late the night before that they were invited to attend the Mass organized by Cardinal Dolan, who serves as archbishop of New York and was archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002-09.

A statue of the seminary’s namesake, St. Francis de Sales, towered above them during that Mass, “so we really felt like he was part of that trip, too,” Fr. Kizewski said.

“That was one of the really most awesome experiences of my life — in particular because I ended up being able to assist with the music for the Mass,” Luke said.

He and several other seminarians formed a small group that sang parts of the Mass. Luke said he appreciated the opportunity to worship at St. Peter’s in that moment with the pope in state nearby and “to pour out my heart in prayer for him.”

“It’s a very special experience to go into that basilica for a liturgy,” Luke said. Having done both, he said it is very different than entering as a visitor focused on all the physical aspects of the basilica.

One seminarian had never flown before and many had never been to Europe, Fr. Kroll noted. It was special to see the men preparing to become priests “moved and fascinated by the heart of our Church.” In addition to other events, the group also had the unique opportunity to visit the Sistine Chapel privately at night and spend time praying there.

What did the seminarians do first when they returned home?

“They left their bags in the hallway and went immediately to the chapel to offer a Requiem Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,” a Jan. 6 seminary Facebook post said.