- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

When Benedict XVI was introduced as the new pope to a wildly cheering crowd at dusk on April 19, 2005, a local priest was standing just feet away from him.

A misty rain was falling when the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stepped out on a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. To his right and left were dozens of red-robed cardinals who had elected him.

Just behind the new pontiff was Monsignor K. Bartholomew Smith, then priest-secretary to Cardinal William Baum, the retired archbishop of Washington.

“It was a delightful moment, rich and joyful,” remembers the priest, now pastor of St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church in Silver Spring. “It was a privilege to be there with him and to be part of the conclave that brought him to that point. I intended to remember that moment for the rest of my life.”

A photographer for L’Osservatore Romano, a daily Vatican newspaper, helped make that possible by snapping his photograph. The priest’s face appeared suspended right next to the new pope and forever in history.

Monsignor Smith had not planned to be up on the papal loggia at the time. He had been stationed in Rome, assisting Cardinal Baum, the senior elector in the conclave that chooses the pope and one of three senior cardinals designated to accompany the newly elected pontiff to the balcony.

Wherever Cardinal Baum went, his priestly assistant was not far behind, guiding the cardinal, whose eyesight is failing. Monsignor Smith, then 40, was one of three priests allowed in the conclave, the secret assembly that elects a pope. They were support for older cardinals who needed human assistance to get around the Domus Santa Maria, a residence the cardinals use during the conclave.

Monsignor Smith spent most of his time during the two-day conclave in a formal receiving hall just outside the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals were meeting.

“When it became apparent they had elected on the fourth ballot,” he said, “we knew who it was. But no one leaned out the door and said, ‘Hey! It’s Ratzinger.’ ”

By the time the Washington priest knew the election results, it was midafternoon on April 19, 2005. The ballots had to be recounted and the new pope had to be interrogated on whether he accepted the election and then be led away and fitted into papal vestments. Pope Benedict XVI then returned to greet all the other cardinals and receive their vows of fealty.

The priest finally glimpsed the new pope as he left the Sistine Chapel to ascend the stairs to the famous balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, where about 100,000 people were gathered.

By this time, white smoke had poured out of the Vatican chimney and the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica had tolled, announcing that the cardinals had made their choice.

The monsignor noticed a more mundane detail: The new pontiff had thrown on a black sweater underneath his robes to guard against the evening chill.

“If you live in Rome any length of time, you wear a lightweight sweater from October to May because it’s chilly in those stone buildings,” he says.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Baum needed help getting up the stairs, and he was the last cardinal to arrive in the lineup of prelates next to Pope Benedict. By this time, the crowd had been informed of the identity of the new pope.

Monsignor Smith placed the cardinal by a pillar, then stepped back, ending up directly behind Pope Benedict and right in the lens of the L’Osservatore Romano photographer.

“I knew Ratzinger in passing,” Monsignor Smith says. “He lived less than a block from me and he’d nod in greeting, but I didn’t take the opportunity to burden him with my personal enthusiasm.”

He is now trying to build enthusiasm among his parishioners for Pope Benedict’s U.S. visit.

“He has a marvelous personality, and it pays to get to know him better,” he said of the pope. “It is always amazing to touch someone who is your link to Jesus Christ.

“This pope is a human being; we can touch him and see him. But he’s also an apostle, and he’s come into our midst to preach the Word.”

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