Jesuit Gardens: When in Rome

When in Rome

By Rachel Buttner, BA’03

“He looked me in the eyes, and I started to shake a little. I shook his hand and said, ‘I want to be a photojournalist when I grow up, to give a voice to the voiceless. I want to thank you for lending your voice and helping those in need, and I want you to know I’m praying for you.’”

A.J. Olnes nearly lost his voice in the stirring moment. “The pope put his other hand on my arm, and said, ‘Thank you. I’ll need all the prayers I can get, and may God bless you.’”

Meeting Pope Francis moved Olnes to tears. “We were looking at each other right in the eye; it was just,” he says, “peace.”

Olnes spent three months of his spring senior semester as a public affairs intern at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in Rome. In his final week, he earned a ticket to a papal audience. Photographing the pope was part of Olnes’ internship duties, but meeting the pope was a divine bonus and one of many extraordinary experiences in Rome. “It did change my life,” he says, “both spiritually and by reaffirming who I want to be in the future.”

The road to the Eternal City started a year prior, when Carol Zuegner, PhD, BA’77, chair of the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing, urged Olnes to apply. It was an opportunity to connect his photography interests and public relations major with his faith.

At the Holy See, which refers to the governmental branch of the Roman Catholic Church, Olnes worked closely with Ambassador Callista Gingrich and the embassy’s small staff. He collected news from the Vatican and Holy See to draft reports sent on to Washington, D.C., planned events, tweeted, designed graphics and worked with the media. “Trial by fire,” Olnes explains, “but it was the way I like to learn. I was treated as an equal with everybody in the embassy, which was awesome.”

Olnes had a large hand in organizing the embassy’s Stand Together to Defend International Religious Freedom symposium, marking the 35th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Holy See. The L’osservatore Romano published his photography from the symposium, giving Olnes his first international photo credit.

Another special credit came during Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square. As the pope spoke to the thousands gathered, Olnes, outfitted with Creightonian press credentials, and photographers from the Associated Press, Reuters and Catholic News Service took panoramic shots from atop the plaza’s massive colonnades — an area open to photographers just twice a year. “‘Wow,’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m living my dream right now,’” he says of a moment when his faith and photojournalist aspirations united.

Self-reflection is a habit for Olnes. When he discovered the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea Apostolo, a small 14th-century church at Lake Como, he sat alone for two hours “thinking about how much my life has changed — how God works in mysterious ways.” Olnes spent his first two years at Creighton as a business student before converting to journalism following a Backpack Journalism trip to the Nogales, Arizona/Mexico border. Through it all, faith was constant for Olnes, a Sunday regular at Creighton’s Candlelight Mass and leader for Campus Ministry retreats.

Even in Rome, he was never too far from Creighton. When an Ignatian pilgrimage group from Creighton, which included Zuegner, passed through the city, Olnes joined them for a tour of the Rooms of St. Ignatius and the Vatican Museums. He also spent time with the Rev. Don Doll, SJ, professor emeritus of photojournalism, who was traveling from India and showed Olnes around the Jesuit Curia, the worldwide headquarters of the Society of Jesus.

“I’ve been lucky, but God has always been there, and my friends, my family, the Creighton community,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m more Catholic now; I’m seeing my faith and practicing my faith in a different way.”

But still seeing God in all things.