Dominic Massa / EyewitnessNews

A New Orleans Catholic church pastor is one of the thousands of Catholic pilgrims, church leaders and reporters at the Vatican to witness the historic election of the next pope.

It will be the second time that Monsignor Christopher Nalty, pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Uptown New Orleans, is at the Vatican to anticipate the white smoke rising from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel, followed by the new pope's introduction to the world from his balcony.

Nalty was studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome in 2005, when Pope Benedict XVIwas elected. He later served a term as an official with the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, and was in Rome for Benedict's election.

'I'll be honest, being there, when the white smoke came and he was announced, was without question the most exciting thing I've ever seen,' Nalty told Eyewitness News in a phone interview Tuesday morning.

'I told myself I've got to see this again in my lifetime, it was so exciting. And so there's a real great hopeful expectation in the city right now and it's all anybody is talking about. If there's other news going right now in the world, I wouldn't know much about it.'

Nalty, a native New Orleanian, returned to Rome on Monday just as the conclave to elect Benedict's successor began. Nalty said he was one of the priests distributing communion at the Mass celebrated for the cardinals on Tuesday before they locked themselves in the room to begin the voting process.

'They look at all their peers in that room and say who is the one I want to have leading all of us,' Nalty explained.

He said the excitement and interest throughout Rome, even among non-Catholics, is clear.

'I've taken cabs from the airport and around the city today and that's all everybody wants to talk about.'

Msgr. Nalty said the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, though it followed the same ritual, was much different because it followed the death of his predecessor, the beloved Pope John Paul II, which led to nine days of mourning before the next pope was chosen. This time, the preceding pope is now pope emeritus, having taken the rare step of retiring, to clear the way for a new election.

Msgr. Nalty said that American Catholic leaders, like himself, have been intrigued by talk in some circles that this election could lead to an American pope.

'I can promise you when I was here before, I never heard that,' he said. 'It was always clear the cardinals saw America as a military, economic, cultural superpower and the idea they would hand the church over to an American would be very unlikely.'

Nalty said the leadership that some of the American church leaders have shown, in particular during the sexual abuse scandal, may be what is changing world views. One of them, with whom
Nalty is personally familiar, is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Dolan served as Nalty's seminary rector while he was in school at the Pontifical North American College.

'I also think what's happened is you've got some really amazing cardinals from the United States right now. They are cardinals who are personally very appealing characters. They are well-respected by their peers, they have facility of language, they've been in a variety of ministries, and so I think what it's come down to is it's not so much about the race or nationality, it's more about the people.'

But in the end, Nalty said that all the speculation is just that speculation and he and the other faithful Catholics who will gather in St. Peter's Square when the new pope makes his entrance, are there for that moment.

'It doesn't matter who people speculate may be the leading candidate. Whoever walks out on that balcony is going to be the new pope and that's what I'm here for. It's a really exciting time.'

Nalty said he will stay at the Vatican until the new pope is elected, which could come by the week's end. Having lived and worked at the Vatican, he has friends and colleagues there with whom he will visit. His sister is also one of 6,000 journalists credentialed to cover the conclave and papal election, as a producer for ABC News.

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