Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York arrives at Nostra Signora di Guadalupe… (Andrew Medichini / Associated…)
ROME -- They asked for prayers of support, quipped with adoring parishioners and kissed squirming babies.
On the eve of what may be the most important decision of their lives, Roman Catholic cardinals who will choose the next pope made their likely last scheduled public appearances Sunday, preaching at churches across the city while attempting to dodge packs of journalists who followed in close pursuit.
Several alluded to the conclave, the behind-closed-doors meeting in the Sistine Chapel where 115 of these most senior prelates will elect a successor to Benedict XVI from among their ranks. It starts Tuesday.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., asked for his parishioners’ prayers and support at the end of a brief sermon at the San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains) church. To his left was a majestic 16th–century marble sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo.
“That’s all I can say about the conclave,” Wuerl said, noting that the cardinals had voted not to give interviews until after the conclave ends. “All we can say about the conclave is we are having one.”
Later, to a reporter’s question, he said he was not afraid of the momentous task ahead of him “because it is in the hands of God, the Holy Spirit.”
Sunday was the fourth Sunday of Lent and so a theme of sacrifice was typical in the sermons. The gospel for the day featured the parable of the prodigal son, which Wuerl said shows a father’s eternal willingness to forgive.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Italy’s largest diocese, and often mentioned as a leading candidate to become pope, sounded a similar note.
In a 13-minute homily at the centuries-old Santi Apostoli basilica (the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles) near Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain, he said that the Catholic Church’s message ought to convey the idea of God’s mercy as a source of hope.
Afterward, Scola asked an estimated 150 worshipers to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the cardinals’ choice of a pope who would lead the church along the same path as the great pontiffs of years past. Devotees grabbed his hands and kissed his ring as Scola and other clerics filed past the pews.
In the nearby church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer was met by a scrum of media as he arrived to lead Mass. Scherer also makes many short lists for likely next pope.
In fuchsia vestments that contrasted with the deep purple of the other clerics, Scherer told the congregation that it was a “time of joy and hope.” He preached for 20 minutes, then delighted the packed church by blessing a white-haired couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.
He was mobbed by well-wishers and television cameras before disappearing into the back of the little church, a 17th-century masterpiece by the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini known as the “pearl of the Baroque.”
Every cardinal, upon his elevation, is assigned his “titular church” in Rome in keeping with Catholic belief that the pope is the “bishop of Rome” and the cardinals are Rome’s parish priests.
And while journalists are not known for their piety, it was a given that they would stake out most if not all of the 115 titular churches in hopes of snagging a final quote or observation. (At Wuerl’s church, reporters appeared to outnumber worshipers.)
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles celebrated Mass at the church assigned to him as a cardinal, a medieval jewel known as Santi Quattro Coronati, as he had on Friday.
Although it is generally considered unlikely that an American would be selected pope, the names of two U.S. contenders do pop up regularly, and they are men of styles that could not be more different.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley may have felt a tad embarrassed Sunday when the Rev. Rocco Visca, provincial father of the Discalced Carmelites at the baroque Santa Maria della Vittoria church, talked about what a fabulous pope the bearded Boston prelate would make.
“If our prayers are heard, we hope this will be your last visit to this church as titular cardinal,” Visca said, and the destination of “your first visit as pontiff.”
Visca added that O’Malley, a Franciscan, was a “beloved and affable pastor” with “humility and the courage and capacity for dialogue.”
O’Malley quipped that upon being assigned Santa Maria della Vittoria, he asked to take with him back to Boston its imposing Bernini statue, St. Theresa in Ecstasy. But he was told Napoleon had already tried to do that and failed.
Settling into his homily, O’Malley said the message of this Lenten Sunday is that this “is the right moment to bring ourselves through the sacrament of reconciliation, to the hope of the return of those who are lost.”