As the world’s Roman Catholic cardinals head to the Vatican to select the next pope, speculation abounds that Boston’s own Cardinal Sean O’Malley is among the contenders.
The world has yet to have an American pope and the thought that the leader of the Boston archdiocese is receiving serious consideration surely is fascinating. However, O’Malley, or any other American for that matter, would have to be a long shot.
The cardinals, historically, keep their own counsel. And they surely will again when they gather early in March to elect a successor to the retiring Benedict XVI.
But even casual observers of the process can detect certain trends. The foremost is that, despite recent history, popes are usually Italians. The elevation of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978 began the first non-Italian papacy in 455 years. Benedict, the retiring pope, is German.
When popes are selected from outside Italy, it usually serves some broader Church purpose. John Paul’s selection in 1978 helped strengthen the Church in the then-communist countries of Eastern Europe. As the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stood for the Church’s conservatism in the face of demands for liberalization of doctrine, a position his elevation as Benedict XVI reinforced.
When Benedict announced earlier this month that he would resign due to declining health, speculation began immediately as to who would be his successor. Many observers see Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan as the leading candidate. But Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires are also contenders.
Americans generally are unlikely prospects for pope supposedly because the cardinals fear combining U.S. political power with spiritual authority. But O’Malley’s name keeps surfacing in the Catholic press as an American with prospects. John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has noted that the Italian press has put O’Malley on a list of “papabili” — Italian for those regarded as capable of serving as leader of the Catholic Church.
O’Malley’s reputation as a modest, spiritually dedicated reformer is what puts him on that list. He is seen as having done well in the wake of the sex abuse scandal that saw Cardinal Bernard Law resign as leader of the Boston archdiocese. O’Malley’s service to the poor and devotion to the pro-life cause also make him an appealing candidate, observers say.
“There are 117 cardinals and probably 116 of them would love to be pope,” Thomas Groome, theology professor at Boston College told NBC News. “The one who wouldn’t is O’Malley and that could be why he gets it.”
O’Malley himself laughs off the idea that he might be pope, joking that he has purchased a two-way plane ticket to the conclave in Rome.
The papacy is an ancient and powerful human institution and the elevation of a pope is a rare event. It is fascinating for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to see the process in action.
Even the cardinals themselves cannot predict what will happen. There is an old saying that “he who enters the conclave a pope, leaves it a cardinal.” Meaning: Front-runners are often disappointed.