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  • John Thavis

In one Roman neighborhood, rooting for Cardinal O’Malley

If it were up to Maria Cherubino, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston would emerge from the coming conclave as the next pope.

“He’s a spiritual figure, he’s fairly young and energetic, and he seems sure of himself. All that is important, because I think the church needs a great guide in this particular moment,” she said after attending Mass celebrated by Cardinal O’Malley in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

A few pews away, Elisabetta Porco gave a similar endorsement.

“There was just something about him I immediately liked when I saw him. Maybe being a friar is part of it, but I have the feeling he would be a different kind of pope,” she said.

Her assessment appeared to be shared by the crowd of parishioners that packed into the small church, where O’Malley is the “titular” cardinal – every cardinal is assigned a titular church in Rome, and the Boston cardinal was lucky enough to get a historic one in the city center.

Father Rocco Visca welcomed Cardinal O’Malley with a talk that stopped just short of being a campaign speech. He recalled telling a reporter about O’Malley’s qualities as a “lovable, humble but decisive” man, whose only “defect” was that he was a Capuchin friar – a remark made in jest, but reflecting the fact that it’s been ages since a member of a Franciscan order was elected pope.

Father Visca said he knows that Cardinal O’Malley has called the prospect of his election to the throne of Peter “surreal” and even frightening, but he urged the cardinal to let himself be guided by “the design of the Holy Spirit.”

“We hope this will be your last visit to our church as a titular cardinal. And if our prayers are answered, we hope your first visit as pontiff will be to our – and your – church, Santa Maria della Vittoria,” he added, to the delight of everyone in attendance.

Well, almost everyone.

A contrary voice from Boston

Among those attending the Mass was Peter Borré, who heads the Council of Parishes in Boston, a group that has fought against O’Malley’s plans for parish closings. He said Boston has gone from 400 parishes 10 years ago to 280 parishes today, and if Cardinal O’Malley has his way, that will shrink to about 130 parish clusters in coming years.

The way Borré sees it, “That’s purification with a vengeance.”

“I think the fundamental policy choice is, do we continue one-third of a century of downsizing … with the idea of, let’s get to a base? Or do we restore the catholic small-c and reach out? O’Malley, for all his pastoral ways, has been on the leading edge of downsizing. That doesn’t work for me,” he said.

Another reason Borré has trouble envisioning O’Malley as pope is his management style, at a time when many cardinals are calling for deep reform of the Roman Curia.

“It’s clear from these discussions in Rome that somebody has got to get a grip on the Curia. This guy, in Boston for almost 10 years, has given up. He signs what he’s told to sign. And then this American notion, well, that it’ll be a split ticket so we’ll have Godzilla as secretary of state – that doesn’t work in an absolute monarchy,” he said.

The prodigal son

In his homily at today’s Mass, O’Malley spoke in decent enough Italian (though he mispronounced the Italian word “conclave”), reflecting on the Gospel parable of the prodigal son, and the need for the church to reach out with mercy to people who have grown distant from the faith.

He spoke briefly about the conclave, which begins on Tuesday, asking for prayers so that the cardinals will “choose a new pope who will confirm us in our faith and make more visible the love of the Good Shepherd, who seeks out the lost sheep, who heals the sick and who embraces the prodigal son.”

“One can leave the house of the father, the church, for various reasons: ignorance, a poor welcome, negative experiences, scandals and spiritual mediocrity,” he said.

O’Malley has become an unlikely favorite of Italians in the run-up to the conclave, even coming in first place in a reader poll conducted by the newspaper Corriere della Sera. In fact, as of today O’Malley was leading the next highest vote-getter in the reader poll, Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, by a 2-1 margin.

That ensured that there were almost as many journalists as worshipers in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church. At the end of the Mass, a priest told reporters not to even think about interviewing the cardinal: “We’re taking him out a secret back door known only to us.”

The priest joked that the church is probably best known on the tourist map as the setting for grisly scenes in Dan Brown’s fictional best-seller, “Angels and Demons.”

The Sunday send-off

All across Rome, other cardinals were receiving similar send-offs to the conclave as they celebrated liturgies in their titular churches.

A few blocks away, Cardinal Scola told his faithful: “The church’s mission is always to announce the mercy of God, even to the sophisticated and disoriented people of the 21st century, even in these afflicted times.”

Meanwhile, just down the street, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer said the conclave marked a “beautiful’ moment for the church, and an opportunity to show the world that the faith was built on “joy and hope.”

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