ROME (RNS) If ordinary Romans still had in a say in selecting their bishop – also known as the pope – the way they did in the early centuries of the church, then Cardinal Timothy Dolan might already be pontiff.
On Sunday the archbishop of New York continued to charm the citizens of the Eternal City (and many in the media, who probably seem him as more papabile than his fellow cardinals do) as he celebrated mass at the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a middle-class Roman neighborhood.
“What a great crowd – let’s take two collections!” Dolan quipped, deploying his workman-like Italian in an unabashedly American accent, and drawing laughs and applause throughout the liturgy.
Two days before they go into the conclave to begin voting for a new pope, Dolan and many of the other 115 cardinal-electors meeting here took a pause from their pre-election deliberations to visit what are called their titular churches, or parishes that they are given ceremonial title to when they are given a red hat.
The tradition recalls the custom of past centuries when the clergy of Rome elected the pope – the Bishop of Rome – often with the approval of the people. By giving cardinals titular churches they are thus keeping a symbolic bond to that earlier tradition.
While most cardinals are given ancient parishes that are often lovely and historic but almost devoid of worshipers, Dolan asked for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was built in the last century and is a bustling congregation. The church was especially lively on this Sunday, given Dolan’s presence at the 11:30 Mass, with the usual scrum of media in tow.
“What do you think, will he be pope?” several parishioners were heard asking each other as they watched Dolan process slowly up the nave, trailing the rest of the procession as he stopped to shake every hand and exchange small talk with the 400 or so people who jammed the church to overflowing.
Dolan is often mentioned as one of the leading papabile, or “pope-able,” cardinals, because he has made such a big impression in the media, even after he and the other American cardinals were asked to stop giving their closely-followed daily briefings to the media last week.
But Dolan and the others still draw a crowd, and Dolan in particular hates to disappoint reporters.
After Mass on Sunday he stopped for a few minutes to take questions from the journalists, and while he deflected direct questions – about how long the conclave might take or his own prospects – he said that the cardinals are settling in on some serious candidates before they head into the conclave in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday afternoon.
“You know,” he said, “the Italians have a beautiful saying: ‘You can only make gnocchi with the dough you have.’ So we (cardinals) have got to be good dough for the Holy Spirit to work through. I think we’re almost there.”
“A week ago we’d have said, ‘Wow, we’ve got a lot of work to do.’ But now you see a sense of resignation, trust, and faith,” Dolan added.
At the Mass he celebrated on Sunday at his titular church near the Colosseum, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl declined to say anything conclave-related, joking to reporters — who may have outnumbered parishioners at the historic parish of St. Peter in Chains: “All we can say is that we are having it.”
Similarly, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a soft-spoken Franciscan who may be the most genuinely papabile of the Americans, avoided any direct mention of the conclave at his small, downtown titular church and did not speak to reporters.
But the parish priest of Santa Maria Della Vittoria, a Carmelite church that houses the famous Bernini sculpture the Ecstasy of St. Teresa, was not as reticent.
The Rev. Rocco Visca told O’Malley in his welcome that he hoped his first visit outside of the Vatican after he was elected pope would be to visit this church.
O’Malley responded, in way, saying that when he was given this titular church “I joked that I wanted to take the statue of Saint Teresa back with me.”
“After the conclave,” he continued, “I will return as a cardinal and maybe this time I will be able to take it back with me to Boston.”
But if many still doubt that any American would be chosen, Dolan’s characteristic exuberance and charisma have still made him an irresistible target for speculation, and a big hit among Romans.
Sunday’s Mass again showed why, as he riffed on the Gospel passage of the day, telling the crowd that he feels like the Prodigal Son when he comes to Our Lady of Guadalupe because he feels right at home.
“After St. Patrick’s in New York, this is my favorite church!” he told the crowd, winking as he asked them to keep that a secret.
“Here with you I am not the Archbishop of New York, I am not a cardinal, but I am finally a parish priest.” For Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, which takes up the theme of joy, Dolan wore the traditional rose-colored vestments – an outfit he has said makes him feel “like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.”
Dolan gave a brief homily in Italian in which he asked for their continued prayers as the cardinals head into the conclave, and at the end of the Mass he smiled and noted that in the basket of Italian delicacies brought to him “I saw some candies in there too.”
He said he couldn’t touch them until Easter, because he had given up sweets for Lent, but prompted laughs and applause when he added: “Maybe I’ll take a little package of candies into the conclave with me. Because I hear the food there isn’t so great.”
Sabrina Filippi, 55, a shopkeeper, told the New York Times she had seen Dolan at the parish last October when he visited like him just as much this time.
“He is just very pleasant and funny man, very easygoing, not intimidating at all, very personable,’’ she said. “I really wish he could be Pope. Among the contenders, he is the closest to John Paul II, he is enthralling, a real leader. ‘’
If Dolan were auditioning to show that he could be bishop of Rome, he certainly won the role on Sunday. But at the end of the day, they were not the audience that votes.