ROME -- Two U.S. cardinals shrugged off their papal chances at their respective Masses on Sunday, as a 115-strong voting body prepares to cast ballots Tuesday for the next leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told congregants at Our Lady of Guadalupe of Monte Mario that he stood before them not "as a bishop or a cardinal, but as a priest sustained by your prayers," which he said he would carry with him into the impending conclave.
Meanwhile, in the bustling heart of the Eternal City, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston dismissed a local priest's popular plea that he promise to return soon to Santa Maria della Vittoria as "the next pope."
Instead, O'Malley said in Italian that the cardinals "are looking to the Holy Spirit to guide us to a new pope who can confirm our faith."
These demurrals in each man's titular church -- every cardinal is granted one in Rome -- were expected, given that anyone aspiring to the throne of St. Peter knows that to do otherwise is to invite defeat.
But pundits and believers sense their chances are real, which says something considering that in the modern era the only two non-Italian popes hailed from neighboring European countries, Poland and Germany.
Influential Italian cardinal Camillo Ruini, who at 82 is not eligible to vote, called Dolan a "dream" candidate for the papacy, while Andrea Orsini, a member of O'Malley's church, said that "as a (St. Francis-influenced) Capuchin, (O'Malley) pays special attention to poverty (and) simplicity, things the church has strayed from a bit."
The few times both men went off script Sunday, they targeted laugh lines. Dolan elicited applause when he told the packed audience, "Don't let the word get out, but aside from St. Patrick's in New York, this is my favorite church in the world."
O'Malley made a joke about still wanting to sneak away to Boston with his church's prized possession: an exquisite, controversial 17th-century Bernini sculpture, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. That generated good-natured comments of "non ci provare" -- "don't try it" -- in the pews.
Although Dolan's Mass was not open to TV cameras, the 100-seat Santa Maria della Vittoria overflowed with media, prompting priest Rocco Visca, who introduced O'Malley, to say he'd never seen so many attendees. "I'd like to invite you all to come back. Not you," he said with a laugh, pointing at reporters.
As Dolan exited, he stopped to greet the crowd waiting to touch him, which was five-people deep, many with tears in their eyes.
"It's obvious that he is a good man, a holy man," said Flavia Nicastro, 20. Asked if she'd like to see him as pope, she said yes, then paused to consider the American's not-so-lilting Italian. "It could take a while to get used to that accent of his, though."
Marco della Cava
and Eric J. Lyman