Papal Candidates Woo Rome's Worshippers before Ballot Begins

By Lizzy Davies
The Guardian UK
March 10, 2013

Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, celebrates mass at Santa Maria della Vittoria

Jokes and prayers from cardinals at city churches as Vatican installs chimney on Sistine chapel roof

It was a mass with a difference. For one thing, there were more worshippers in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church than usual. ("Come back!" begged the excited local priest.) For another, the liturgy was led by a jovial American who joked about swiping the church's most exquisite treasure and taking it back to Boston. What's more, the congregation knew that by the end of the week, that man, Cardinal Seán O'Malley, could – just possibly – be pope.

He wasn't the only one, of course. Across Rome, a similar story was being played out in many of the titular churches whose status affords them a special link with one or other of the 115 cardinals who will choose Benedict XVI's successor. On a day of rest before the start of conclave , many of the most prominent prelates visited their Roman flocks and called on them to pray for the right choice to be made. For many, good communication skills and a solid pastoral record are top of the list of qualities needed in the next pope – a fact that may not have gone unnoticed by the cardinals who chose to spend yesterday among the people.

"The conclave is just around the corner," said Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan and a leading papabile (possible candidate). "Let us pray that the holy spirit gives the church a man who can lead her in the footsteps of the great pontiffs of the past 150 years."

As the preparations for conclave entered the final stretch, the chimney that will emit white smoke when a pope is elected was fixed on to the roof of the Sistine chapel on Saturday. A Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, announced, meanwhile, that, among other objects, Benedict XVI's fisherman's ring had been scratched and thus destroyed. With a hint of relief, Lombardi also announced that yesterday was – as he put it – "a holiday".

Some cardinals, such as the 55-year-old Filipino Luis Antonio Tagle, decided to spend the day quietly preparing for the work ahead. The electors – who have been meeting since last Monday – still have one more session to go before the secretive ballot starts. Others, among them the Hungarian Peter Erdo, Canadian Marc Ouellet and Ghanaian Peter Turkson, preferred to head out and celebrate mass.

At the church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, Odilo Pedro Scherer, archbishop of São Paulo and reported favourite of several heavyweight figures within the troubled Roman curia, told a congregation that with all the interest in the papal transition the church was experiencing "a joyous time full of hope". But he added, in a warning note: "We need to make the right decision." The 63-year-old is regarded as the leading contender in a strong field of Latin American candidates, and he certainly had support at the church. "He was very good," said Rino Bianchi, an Italian onlooker. "He has a simplicity of communication; he doesn't distance himself."

Fausto Longo, a newly elected senator in the Italian parliament originally from São Paulo, spoke of the benefits a Brazilian pontiff could bring. "The most important thing is that Brazil is the most Catholic country in the world now in terms of numbers [and] a Brazilian pope could stimulate the faith among young people," he said.

Back at Santa Maria della Vittoria, O'Malley, the 68-year-old archbishop of Boston and proud Capuchin Franciscan, continued to woo the Italians with his down-to-earth delivery, sometimes in Italian and sometimes in English.

He urged the congregation to pray for the holy spirit to "illumine the church to choose a new pope who will confirm us in our faith". And he joked that, maybe this time, he would manage to take home with him Bernini's magnificent Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which resides in the church.

It was a novel way of batting off growing speculation surrounding his papal potential. O'Malley is very popular at the grassroots level in Italy, but how he will fare in the Sistine chapel is another question entirely. "He's a wonderful person," said Sister Bernadette, a Californian based in Rome who had come to see him celebrate mass. "The fact that he's American: I don't know if we're ready for that yet, to be honest."

Meanwhile another American, Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and bombastic broadcaster on Catholic radio SiriusXM, was living up to his reputation as the bon vivant of papabili in the northern Rome neighbourhood of Monte Mario. Upon being given a case of food and drink by the waiting faithful, he at first said he would wait until Easter to open it then, according to Corriere della Sera, he appeared to change his mind when reminded of the challenging days ahead. "Maybe I'll take the packet of sweets with me into conclave," he joked. "I've heard that the food is so-so."

Asked about the conclave, Dolan said he hoped it would be brief. On the radio at the weekend, he said the cardinals had spent plenty of time in "penitential" meetings discussing the church and the future pope. And, anyway, he added: "I'm running out of socks."


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