Students at the University of Dallas who are spending this semester in Rome had a special opportunity to show their love and support for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as he officially retired from the papacy.

"It was a very special moment because we were able to give the Pope a farewell present that was totally unique," said Ada Thomas.

On Feb. 28, as the Pope traveled by helicopter from the Vatican to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo to begin his retirement, University of Dallas students were taking part in a campus tradition – the "Geek Olympics," a day of games held each semester before the students embark on a trip to Greece.
Dressed in multi-colored togas, the students interrupted their activities to send the Pope a special message as he passed close to their campus. They aligned themselves on the school's soccer field to spell out the word "Benedictus" and cheered as the retiring Pope passed.

"As we squinted up, we could just make out a tiny white speck looking down on us," Thomas told CNA.

"Being a convert, Pope Benedict is the only pope I've ever known, so I am terribly sad to see him resign," she explained. However, she added, everyone has "been tremendously supportive of the Pope's decision, and we have been able to see how much he truly appreciates it."  

Each semester, the University of Dallas – a Catholic university based in Texas – sends approximately 100 students to its Due Santi campus located just outside of Rome, less than two miles from Castel Gandolfo.

While the semester is generally remembered as a highlight of students' time at the university, those who are in Rome this spring have had a particularly memorable trip.

Alex Taylor remembers precisely where he was when he heard the news of Pope Benedict's resignation on Feb. 11.

He told CNA that he and his classmates were getting out of an Art and Architecture class, and when the announcement was made, "the room went from being relatively quiet to abuzz with murmuring students."

"We were both sad to see Benedict go, but definitely excited to be in Rome during a papal election, which is such a rare privilege," he explained.

Daily Mass on campus that afternoon "was absolutely full," he continued. "We definitely wanted to gather together in prayer for the pope's intentions and for the Holy Spirit to inspire the conclave, even from the very beginning of the proceedings."

On Ash Wednesday, students "showed up en masse" to the papal Mass, which Taylor called "an inspiring occasion" and his first glimpse of the Holy Father in person since arriving in Rome.  

With the announcement of the resignation, he said, "every opportunity to see him became even more important."

The Holy Father's "care and love for the liturgy was apparent" during the celebration of the Mass, Taylor said, adding that "somehow, he reminded me of my own grandfather back home."

"I really see the Church as a family, and the pope, whoever he is, is in a way, our father in the faith, correcting us and making sure we do what's right, but always in a spirit of faith, hope, and love," he continued.

Taylor and a friend later brought an American flag from a souvenir shop to one of Pope Benedict's final public events.

He explained that "we both really wanted the pope to realize that there are many in America that support and love him, and support the orthodoxy of the Church."

The university was able to obtain tickets for the entire student body on the Rome campus to attend the Pope's last general audience on Feb. 27. Classes were canceled and students were woken up at 5:30 a.m. to travel by bus to St. Peter's Square.

"Everyone at the audience was very enthusiastic," Taylor said, adding that it was an "exhilarating experience" to hear the Holy Father address the pilgrims from around the world "in their native tongues."

Thomas agreed, adding that the event was "a moment of great unity," showing "the vitality and joy" of the Church as the Pope promised "his continued love and prayers."

"It also was a testament to Benedict's work over the last eight years, and the great gratitude that all Catholics feel towards him," she said.

Shortly after the Holy Father's flight past the campus, Thomas said that she made her way "up to Castel Gandolfo, along with a friend, and prayed a Rosary during Benedict's last hour as Pope."

"It was very quiet in the Piazza, and I really had the chance to reflect on the last eight years," she said. "Pope Benedict has been a great influence on me, both spiritually as well as intellectually, and being there for the last hour of his pontificate was my personal way of thanking him."

"Then at 8 o'clock sharp, the Swiss Guards closed the doors to the Papal residence, and, very quietly, it was all over."

As the Catholic Church now waits for the cardinals to elect a new Supreme Pontiff, the University of Dallas students are grateful for the blessing of being in Rome during such a historic time.