A Villanova student is at the center of the Vatican action

Danielle McMonagle of Moorestown, with a friend in Rome, began her internship at a Vatican office on the day the pope said he would resign.
Danielle McMonagle of Moorestown, with a friend in Rome, began her internship at a Vatican office on the day the pope said he would resign.
Posted: March 14, 2013

Danielle McMonagle's semester as a communications intern at the Vatican was supposed to be a quiet one.

Then her new boss, Pope Benedict XVI, announced his retirement on the day she was to start, and all heaven broke loose.

"It's been pretty crazy ever since," the Villanova University junior said Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, she had watched as 115 cardinals from around the world filed into the Sistine Chapel to begin choosing Benedict's successor.

But McMonagle, of Moorestown, was no mere face in the crowd at St. Peter's Square. She tweeted the news on the Vatican's Twitter feed and later posted photos of the start of the conclave on its Facebook page.

"Since I've been here, it's been all about the resignation and the conclave," she said. "It's not at all what anybody expected."

As a temporary member of the Vatican's press corps, McMonagle also was close to the dais when Benedict gave his farewell audience at Pope Paul VI Hall on Feb. 27.

And she will be among the first with the news whenever the chamberlain of the College of Cardinals emerges onto the balcony above the square and proclaims "Habemus papam!" to the throngs below: "We have a pope!"

Benedict's Feb. 11 announcement that he would be the first pope to retire in nearly 600 years stunned the world and sent news organizations everywhere into high gear - especially the Vatican's.

No one was more stunned than McMonagle, who was to start that day as an intern, along with two other Villanova undergraduates, at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

"We were still back in our apartments," she recalled Tuesday, because Benedict made his announcement on a Vatican holiday, and "no one was in the office" when they reported for work.

When they showed up the next day at the council's building behind St. Peter's Basilica, "people were running around, not knowing what to do."

Founded in 1984, the Council for Social Communications is charged primarily with spreading the Catholic Church's message via electronic media and, in recent years, social media.

Within days McMonagle and her colleagues were updating photos for the Vatican's Flickr account, tweeting, posting on the Facebook page, and putting up information on the English pages of its news website, News.va.

"Nobody uses social media like a 20-year-old," explains Villanova communications professor Bryan Crable, head of the internship program.

Since 2008, Villanova, a Catholic university, has annually sent three undergraduate communications majors to the Council for Social Communications for semester-long internships. The school also has sent one or two computer engineering majors to the council since 2003.

"Because we're younger" than most who work in the office, McMonagle said, "we're usually able to think of new ways to convey information and reach a new audience."

The assignments are highly sought-after, Crable said. Last semester, two Villanova students stood with Benedict when he sent his first tweet, which they had helped create. (Benedict's Twitter handle, @pontifex, is on hiatus for the interregnum.)

McMonagle said she started taking special communications courses in her sophomore year in order to enhance her chances of getting a Vatican internship.

Her days start at 9 a.m. and end at 1 p.m., when the Vatican (and most of Rome) breaks for a very long lunch.

Afternoons are spent taking classes in Italian and art history, and hanging out with friends and exploring the restaurants and gelato bars. On weekends, she has visited Florence, Venice, and Barcelona.

McMonagle fell in love with Rome on a family vacation six years ago, and "it was always my dream to come back," she said.

"I would have been content just to be here. But with all that's happening, it's just been amazing."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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