When pilgrims in the Eternal City hope to get an up-close view of the pope, or even shake his hand, they are usually advised to arrive at the Vatican early, to sit next to the barrier and, most importantly, to find a baby.
Brian and Kelle Smith, whose youngest son Bobby recently made his debut on the Pope's Instagram account, only needed the first two suggestions. They’d come prepared with the baby.
Like many pilgrims who visit Rome, on Wednesday morning they woke up early, gathered their six children and braved the rain and long security lines before making in into the Vatican's Paul VI Hall for Pope Francis' Feb. 28 general audience.
Almost as soon as he entered the hall, Francis saw the family and made a beeline to the kids, giving each of them a blessing and patting Bobby, 2, on the cheeks. The toddler, perched on the barrier, has his eyes fixed on the Pope's pectoral cross.
Instead of continuing down the line, Francis paused when he saw Bobby pointing to his chest, and stepped closer, allowing the boy to trace his finger along the chain holding his pectoral cross.
Video footage of the encounter shows the Pope flashing a big smile and giving Bobby a final pat on the cheek before moving down the line of pilgrims.
Clips of the interaction immediately went up on Twitter, and later that day a close-up of the Bobby touching Francis' cross went up on the Pope's Instagram account, Franciscus.
In a March 2 interview with CNA, Brian Smith, the boy's father, said it was a special moment for the family, “and Pope Francis was great, he was engaging with [Bobby].”
Smith said his son had been waving at the Pope as he walked in, “and he's got the curly blonde hair, so I guess he caught Pope Francis' eye.”
Francis, he said, “was very warm, and he spent a lot of time with the kids, really engaging with my youngest son.”
Though the interaction only lasted about 20 seconds, Smith was moved by the amount of time Pope Francis spent with them. “He's the Pope, he's the leader of our Church, of a billion Catholics, and he came and spent that amount of time with us when thousands of people were there to see him.”
During the brief encounter both the Pope and Bobby were talking with each other, Francis spoke in Italian and Bobby in baby-babble. However, with the noise and the excitement of the moment, Smith said he couldn't make out what either was trying to say.
“It all seemed to happen so fast,” he said, noting that Francis “came and touched all six of the kids' heads and gave them all a blessing, which was great.”
The family left Rome Thursday night and returned to Germany, where Smith is stationed with the U.S. military. They didn't know about the Pope's Instagram post until the next day, when a friend sent them a link to the post on Facebook.
“It was a pretty neat photo, the photographer did a great job capturing it,” he said. “It was pretty meaningful.”
After living in Germany for two years, the family is set to return to the United States in six months, and had wanted to visit Rome one last time before going back.
“We basically just went to Rome to see the Pope,” Smith said, explaining that they had initially planned to attend the general audience in January while visiting a friend in Italy, but had to cancel the Rome portion of the trip because the Pope was in South America.
However, it wasn't their first time meeting the Vicar of Christ. Though it was their first interaction with Pope Francis, Brian, Kelle and their three oldest children met Benedict XVI during his Mass for Pentecost in 2010.
“One thing about both of them is that popes love babies,” he said, recalling that as soon as Benedict entered St. Peter's Basilica “he saw the children and he just ignored everybody else and came for the kids and blessed them.”
“So my older three kids don't have an excuse,” he joked, “because they've been blessed by two popes.”
Smith said that while he is excited to return to his home in Texas for a few years, he has enjoyed living in Europe, where, despite a general decline in the practice of the Christian faith, “there's still so many great sites...Pretty much all of modern Europe is based on 1,000 years of the Church being here. So it's great.”
Highlights of their time in Europe have included visits to Fatima, Orvieto and Lourdes, where Smith participated in the annual military pilgrimage to the shrine, as well as many other places where saints are buried.
However, Smith said perhaps the biggest highlight was having his son Bobby — who is named after Jesuit St. Robert Bellarmine — baptized by a Jesuit priest he knows during Mass celebrated at the saint's tomb in Rome.
“This has been a great posting for us,” he said, “because you hear about things but America is not really a Catholic country, so it's great to be able to see all of these pilgrimage places, it's a great blessing.”