By American standards, Italy is a rather compact country in which the grand city newspapers are nationally available. What Americans have with The New York Times, Italians have with several major publications, particularly La Repubblica (Rome), La Stampa (Turin) and Corriere della Sera (Milan). (There is also a daily Catholic newspaper called Avvenire.)
Each newspaper has a Vaticanista, someone who is expert at covering the news and reading the tea leaves at the Vatican. The election of a pope is a moment of glory for the Vaticanista, the moment when his facts are closely studied, his sources speculated about, his interpretations debated.
|U.S. Cardinals Timothy M. Dolan of New|
York and Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, back
right, leave the Pontifical North American
College in Rome enroute to final meeting
with Pope Benedict XVI
However, cardinals talk among themselves. They may have trusted aides they confide in who in turn drop hints to others. And yes, occasionally cardinals do talk with journalists as well, even if it is only a raised eyebrow during a conversation in the street or a seemingly innocuous anecdote. The retired cardinals, who will not be in the conclave, can also share an anecdote or an observation more freely on occasion, as well as do occasional lower-level Church officials. These are some of the tea leaves being read.
(The U.S. cardinals, it is my impression, play by the rules. Americans wait in lines, obey the "do not litter" signs and follow pre-conclave instructions such as shutting down press conferences. Not all others are quite so duty-bound.)
Increasing stature of U.S. Church
All of which means that there is a great deal of speculation abounding that is unsourced, half-sourced and sourced anonymously. According to all of these, the names of U.S. cardinals are being mentioned as possible papabili. Those who have been most visible are Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston. The U.S. media is quite excited about this, and rightly so in the sense that this – along with other developments – is a tribute to the increasing stature of U.S. Church leaders.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., was picked as the relator of last fall’s Synod of Bishops, a prestigious position. A number of the U.S. cardinals have extensive experience in Rome, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, who worked at the Vatican, and Cardinal Dolan, who was rector of the North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome. Three of the voting cardinals are based in Rome now: Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal James Harvey.
U.S. cardinals have been a presence in the general congregations that ended on Monday, March 11, speaking up on the critical issues and concerns of the day. As I mentioned earlier, their media presence is significant, both in the professional operations that the U.S. bishops conference and the individual archdioceses have here, but also the attendant secular and Catholic media coverage as well. It seems as if every U.S. news network has its captive experts on hand – Vaticanisti on retainer who can do their own tea leaf parsing for them.
The two U.S. cardinals most often mentioned in the Italian and U.S. media as papabili are quite different. Cardinal Dolan is a highly visible presence: smiling, gregarious, arm grabbing and back slapping with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a presence big enough to fill any room. Experienced, smart, with a strong sense of history and an ease with being in a leadership role, he comes across as quintessentially American.
Cardinal O'Malley seems in some ways a polar opposite. He seems almost the non-American American: He is a Capuchin Franciscan, wearing brown robes and with a demeanor that matches such simplicity. He exudes an air of calm and simplicity. His Italian is accented by the Spanish he is particularly fluent in rather than his American speech. Italians like the stories of his simple lifestyle, and of course they have a deep love of Franciscans, heirs to their most popular saint. In terms of personality, Cardinal O'Malley is more the introvert to Cardinal Dolan's extroversion. He does have a sense of humor, and his smarts and his toughness are not to be overlooked: He has had to deal with four challenging pastoral situations in four different dioceses.
So, what are the chances that we will have an American pope? If the forecasts are correct (a big if), and if the received wisdom is at all wise, the American options become more likely if the first ballots do not signal a clear front-runner – Cardinals Angelo Scola, Odilo Scherer and Marc Ouellet perhaps – capable of winning two-thirds of the votes.
What dramas play out in the Sistine Chapel and in the conversations taking place back in the cardinals' "hotel" we may not find out for months, but Vatican observers, for perhaps the first time ever, are not discounting the Americans, and that in itself is a big deal.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.