ROME – For those here in in the Eternal City, the days have meant clouds, rain, and sometimes even hail. And yet despite the dreary weather the excitement is palpable as increasing numbers of pilgrims fill St. Peter’s Square. The “smoke watch” gathers steam at certain times of day, and at one point a group even broke out into song. At every café and trattoria, talk centers on who will become the next pope.
That question remains unanswered, but we do know that for the first time it’s possible that an American will walk out on the balcony of St. Peter’s to the words “Habemus Papam!” – “we have a pope!”
The Italian press have been buzzing about Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, a Capuchin Franciscan who’s a hero to all who see, reflected by his brown cassock and simple lifestyle, the holiness that Catholics seek in the person who will stand in the shoes of St. Peter. They envision a “Pope Francis”, and recall God’s words to St. Francis: “Rebuild my Church!”
Cardinal Donarld Wuerl of Washington, D.C. is seen as an effective administrator and pastor, two roles the next pope will have to fill well.
And cheers went up in St. Peter’s Square when the large television screens set up there showed the popular and energetic American Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York taking the oath in the Sistine Chapel.
A Canadian is getting serious consideration as well: Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a native of Quebec who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, remains a favorite. Ouellet has close ties with Latin American bishops, speaks six languages, and is seen as a respected reformer who will get things done.
Why are North Americans front and center now, when in prior conclaves they weren’t mentioned prominently?
Beyond their personal qualities, many believe that they’ll be effective reformers precisely because they’ll try to get as much help as possible from outside the current Vatican bureaucracy.
There’s widespread agreement that the curia needs a real housecleaning, and outsiders who bring a fresh set of eyes and experience with reform are seen by many as the ones to put in charge.
Tuesday night’s black smoke -- signaling that no decision had been made -- was unsurprising but it wasn’t boring.
Insiders here will tell you that the first vote is key: it gives the voting cardinals the lay of the land, and after weeks of discussion lets them know who has real energy behind them.
Demonstrating such energy will be important, because it's a new college of cardinals; highly independent, willing to criticize, and experienced. The conclave that made Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict was full of newcomers to the process; this time around there’s a seasoned group determined to put that experience to good use.
Whatever happens, to be in St. Peter’s Square is to see the global Catholic Church firsthand. People from around the world are here – praying for our Church, experiencing first hand a rare historical moment, and witnessing to the unity of a faith that is engaging the modern world even as it holds its traditions close.
Kim Daniels is director of Catholic Voices USA. Follow her on Twitter at @KDaniels8.