VATICAN CITY -- The Rev. Jerry DiSpigno normally spends his days tending to his flock at Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church in Bellport.
Wednesday, to his amazement, he had a front-row seat to one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the church.
DiSpigno, 56, was in Rome as 115 cardinals from around the world gathered at the Vatican to select a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI -- the first pope to resign in 600 years. "I'm in the middle of the heart of the church during this critical period," he said. "I never thought I would sit here for an election. It's a great experience of the universal church."
DiSpigno arrived a few days after Benedict stepped down on Feb. 28. He is living in a house for priests on sabbatical that's a 10-minute walk from the Sistine Chapel where cardinals cast their secret ballots.
His house is also adjacent to Pontifical North American College. That's where the 11 U.S. cardinals who participated in the conclave stayed before they went into seclusion on Tuesday to start the process that resulted in the selection of Pope Francis.
Before the conclave, DiSpigno said he got to speak with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and other cardinals and their top aides. Dolan, he said, "has a great spirit of joy. You just see the guy and you smile."
DiSpigno also had a bird's-eye view of the final Mass the cardinals celebrated at St. Peter's Basilica on Tuesday before they sequestered themselves to start voting. He was seated just off to their side in the mammoth church built on the site of the tomb of St. Peter, where towering figures like Pope John Paul II are buried. "Never in a million years did I think I would have front-row seats to that Mass," he said. "It was awesome."
DiSpigno didn't think he was going to be in Rome at all. He was supposed to arrive in mid-January for a four-month sabbatical. But constant migraines that started in early December prevented him from traveling. Around the time Benedict resigned, the headaches stopped, so DiSpigno jumped on a plane.
Thoroughly enjoying the moment, he is allowing his parish back home to take the trip with him vicariously. He regularly emails snapshots that are put in the church bulletin or on its website.