Cardinal Angelo Scola attends a meeting with young Catholics Thursday… (Emilio Andreoli, Associated…)
VATICAN CITY — He's God's own man, but Italians think he should be theirs too.
Now, after a 35-year hiccup, they have a good shot at making that true again. As the derby begins to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who stunned the world this week by announcing his intention to retire at the end of the month, Italy is aiming to resume the line of homegrown pontiffs who reigned for more than 450 years until John Paul II, a Pole, came along in 1978.
Italians figure high on the list of likely successors to the German-born Benedict and, by a wide margin, form the single largest national bloc — though far from a majority — among the cardinals who will choose the next occupant of St. Peter's throne.
But chances of a glorious restoration are tempered by strong candidates from other regions, missteps by senior Italians in the Vatican and the reality that the center of gravity of the global church has shifted, perhaps permanently, away from Europe. Many Roman Catholics believe that in the 21st century their leadership would be better off a little less Roman and a lot more catholic.
"Personally I think it'd be cool to have a North American or African pope, even if they are conservative," said Carla Mazzone, 20, an American exchange student who lined up outside St. Peter's Basilica to attend Benedict's last public Mass on Ash Wednesday. "It would make things more global, kind of like when Obama became president."
Vatican-watchers have identified some serious contenders from outside Europe to be the 266th pontiff, including prelates from Canada, Ghana and Argentina (though the last was born to Italian parents).
Yet the still-speculative list of top papabili, or wannabe popes, shows Italy to be hugely overrepresented compared to the proportion with Italian Catholics in the worldwide church.
At least three Italians are being touted now as potential pontiffs: Foremost is 71-year-old Angelo Scola, the well-respected and fiercely intellectual archbishop of Milan, who enjoys a global profile among the devout. Other possibilities are Angelo Bagnasco, the archbishop of Genoa, who can be outspoken in several languages; and Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, a skillful communicator who blogs, tweets and recently quoted singer Amy Winehouse ("Love is a losing game").
The elevation of any of those men, experts say, would signal a determination to keep the church going in the conservative direction set by John Paul and Benedict, toward orthodoxy and core values and away from bold or liberal reforms.
The Italians' prospects could be boosted by the fact that 28 of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote for the next pope hail from Italy. That's nearly a quarter of the total, and exceeds the number from Africa, Asia and Australia combined. The United States has 11.
"The match will be played … between Italian cardinals and the others," wrote Marco Ansaldo, Vatican correspondent for the newspaper La Repubblica. "A lot of the faithful expect the return of an Italian pope."
Besides the cardinals, the "princes" of the church, Italians occupy crucial positions within the Curia, the Vatican administration. The No. 2 in the hierarchy is Tarcisio Bertone, who will manage the Holy See during the interregnum; his newly appointed legal advisor, another key post, is a countryman.
Fellow Italians will also run the cardinals' group discussions before the conclave to choose the pope — sessions during which would-be candidates subtly, or not so subtly, try to impress their mitered peers — and then the all-important conclave itself, which opens in mid-March.
But wielding so much influence is a double-edged sword. Some of the Italians in senior posts have been blamed for embarrassing blunders such as insensitive remarks about clerical sex-abuse allegations and the scandal over leaked papal documents that suggest power struggles and corruption at the highest levels of the Vatican.
In November, Benedict's appointment of six new cardinals, none of them from Europe, was interpreted as a rebuke over the missteps, as well as a redressing of the imbalance of having named seven Italians as cardinals the previous February.
More important in picking a pope, experts say, is finding a firm leader not afraid to shake up an ancient and, in many ways, dysfunctional institution resistant to change.
"You need a strong man," said Roberto Regoli, a church historian at Gregorian University in Rome. "His country of origin is not significant. You need some who's totally prepared and with the ability to govern."
Many Italians insist that one of their own would be best-placed to do that. Although the Vatican has become more international in personnel and outlook in recent years, it remains an institution steeped in Italian culture and intrigue, which can be difficult for outsiders to navigate.