Fr. Roger J. Landry
Conclave Series for the New Bedford Standard Times
March 10, 2013
Prior to this year, there has never been a credible papabile, or serious candidate for the papacy, from the United States.
This year there are two, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the gregarious, mediagenic Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston and much-loved former shepherd of the Diocese of Fall River.
There is a lot of buzz about them coming from American Catholics and media, filled with hope and hype, both home and here. Many Cardinals and veteran members of the Vatican Press corps, however, are also talking about them as real possibilities.
What are the chances that a pope from the United States will emerge from the Conclave wearing red shoes and a white cassock under blue skies?
The answer is slim. Cardinal O’Malley called himself the “darkest of dark horses” to gallop onto the loggia della benedizione. Cardinal Dolan quipped he had a better chance to be A-Rod’s successor as Yankees’ third baseman than Benedict’s successor as Bishop of Rome.
Both are being humble and honest, but they acknowledge that the press and their cardinalatial confreres consider them legitimate contenders, something that can be said of only about 15 of the 115 cardinal electors. It’s also something that’s never been predicable of any of the other 55 men who have been U.S. Cardinals since the first American, Cardinal John McCloskey of New York, was named in 1875.
There are a few reasons why Americans have never been strongly considered for the papacy until now.
First, until John Paul II was elected in 1978, Italians had been Bishop of Rome for 455 years, and so it’s fair to say that no foreigners were ever given much of a chance until then.
Second, American Cardinals have historically had the international reputation — not undeserved — of being great “businessmen,” who have built and administered massive infrastructures of parishes, schools, hospitals and more. But they haven’t been thought of as great theologians or linguists capable of teaching the faith in the various languages of the Catholic world.
Third, especially as the United States has become a world superpower, there has been the assumption that an American couldn’t serve effectively as pope, because, for example, if he were ever to criticize third-world dictators for policies injurious to their people, he might be criticized as just being a puppet of the United States rather than a true moral leader.
That’s all changed, or at least lessened.
We have had two non-Italian popes in a row.
Most American cardinals now have doctorates and, because of study abroad and pastoral work among various immigrant groups, are fluent in many languages beyond their native English.
And, while America is still a superpower, U.S. Cardinals are known to be quite critical and independent of their own government’s policies on scores of issues; few except the paranoid would consider them CIA pawns.
What, in particular, makes Cardinals Dolan and O’Malley papabili?
Cardinal Dolan enfleshes the joy of the Good News, is full of life, humor and enthusiasm, and is a tremendous preacher of the faith at a time when the faith must be compellingly re-proposed. If the Cardinals are looking for an eminently “happy pope” with the administrative chops and outsider status to reform the Vatican Curia, his stock will rise. The fact that he only speaks English and Italian, however, and not French and Spanish, clearly lessens his chances.
Cardinal O’Malley has the reputation for genuine holiness, inspiring preaching, and fluency in all the major Catholic languages. He has also been the worldwide Church’s most famous go-to-guy on responding to the crisis of the sexual abuse of minors. Many Cardinals wonder, however, whether he has the administrative energy and know-how to do a thorough house-cleaning and revitalization of the Vatican bureaucracy.
Both are long shots, but in a Church with a history of miraculous surprises, sometimes long shots happen.