By TYLER ELLYSON
VATICAN CITY – Paige Kristensen thought she was about to get booted from one of the world’s most sacred places.
Instead, she ended up reading Scripture to worshippers at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
Kristensen found herself in the memorable situation Sunday while visiting Rome with fellow University of Nebraska at Kearney student Jennifer Belsan of Columbus.
The Lopers, who are studying abroad in the Czech Republic, used part of their spring break to travel to Italy and check out the Roman Catholic Church headquarters.
“That was our No. 1 priority,” said Kristensen, a sophomore studying business administration and sports management.
The Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, were closed Sunday, leaving Kristensen and Belsan “kind of bummed,” but they quickly rebounded by jumping in a line forming near a gate at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Before they knew it, the UNK students were at the center of the massive church, about 10 rows back, for Mass.
Kristensen, believing they surely needed tickets for the service, was skeptical of their luck.
“I was thinking this was too easy,” the Minden native said.
But they weren’t going to let the experience pass undocumented. Like any college student would, Kristensen and Belsan began taking selfies and sharing photos of the centuries-old church through social media.
After all, there’s a lot to see at Italy’s largest basilica, which features artwork from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including mosaics, Michelangelo’s Pietà, a statue depicting the Virgin Mary mourning over Christ’s body, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baldachin, a 96-feet-tall, bronze canopy above the main altar.
While Kristensen and Belsan were taking it all in, a man in a blue suit approached, asking if they spoke English.
“At this point I’m thinking we’re going to get kicked out,” Kristensen said.
Much to her surprise, he invited her to be the second reader during Mass. Kristensen, dressed in jeans, a jacket and tennis shoes because she had no plans to attend a religious ceremony that day, nervously accepted the offer.
“I’m looking at this book and I’m forgetting how to speak English,” she said, overwhelmed by the responsibility.
With a little guidance – speak loudly and slowly – Kristensen got through the reading as Beslan captured the moment with her cellphone. Kristensen took in the view she’ll likely never have again, standing at the front of one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites.
“Time stood still. It was awesome,” she said. “I just tried to soak up as much of it as I could.”
Kristensen’s mother, Terri Harder, told her daughter it’s the coolest thing that will ever happen to her.
“She thinks my life peaked, and I’m only 20,” Kristensen joked.
St. Peter’s Basilica, built from 1506 to 1626, sits on the site where St. Peter the Apostle was thought to be buried. The current church, featuring a nearly 450-feet-high dome, replaced the original basilica completed in the fourth century.
Kristensen and Belsan, both members of the Alpha Phi sorority at UNK, planned to spend the remainder of their spring break at Italy’s Amalfi Coast and in Greece, where they’ll visit the Acropolis of Athens, Parthenon, Cyclades islands and other attractions.
They’re among a group of more than 20 students from UNK studying in the Czech Republic from mid-March through mid-May. The students, accompanied by UNK history professor Doug Biggs, are staying in Olomouc, a city of about 100,000 residents, while taking courses and learning to speak Czech.
They’ve also spent time in Prague, Dresden, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary.
Kristensen, whose father is UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen, called the experience “amazing.”
“Every place seems to be better than the last,” she said.