In just a decade, Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York City, has risen from a local bishop to becoming a prince of the Catholic Church. He returned from Rome after receiving his cardinal's red hat and ring, like a rock star; a bevy of cameras and lights in tow.
Worldwide buzz around the newly minted Cardinal Dolan is that with his popularity, political savvy, and passion for the church, the question is being raised as to whether he could be the first American pope.
And it's more than just wishful thinking.
"There is something qualitatively different about the speculation surrounding Cardinal Dolan in New York right now," John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said.
Dolan, the shepherd of New York's nearly three million Catholics, was coy when a journalist in Rome posed the question, answering only "Um, non parlo inglese," meaning, "I don't speak English"
And again on his home turf, he was equally evasive, pointing to his ears and claiming the jet lag was still affecting his hearing.
Predicting who the next pope is never a sure bet. In 1978 no one saw a Polish pope, Karol Woytyla, who became John Paul II. And in 2005, many thought Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict VXI, was too old, too European and too controversial.
Papal politics, says Allen, is not like the Iowa caucuses, candidates don't declare themselves, you don't have yard signs and bumper stickers. The cardinals choose the pope's successor in secret conclave at the Vatican, after the death of a sitting pope.
Americans, though, have always been considered long shots. Conventional wisdom holds that the nation's super power status runs counter to the Church's outreach mission. And, Dolan himself lacks a mastery of foreign languages, useful skills that other popes possessed as head of a global church.
Still, the possibility of an American as the next Bishop of Rome has never been so strong Allen, whose latest book, "A People of Hope", is a lengthy interview with then Archbishop Dolan, says,
"With Timothy Dolan there is some of the JP II magic (Pope John Paul II). This guy is a rock star in any room he walks into. He exudes charisma, it's almost as if its charisma on steroids. At a time when the Catholic Church is suffering from an image problem I think a lot of people see in Dolan someone who can put a positive face and voice on the Catholic message."
Right now the message has turned political as the nation's bishops, headed by Dolan, are embroiled in a high stakes showdown with the Obama administration over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Health Care Act. Allen concedes that if the bishops fail and lose this fight it might dim Dolan's star. But, the perception is that Dolan has rung Obama's bell, and the president is paying attention. As cardinal of the most prominent pulpit in America, Dolan has the platform to wield a powerful political punch.
In the end though, the next pope will only ostensibly be chosen by the cardinals. The faithful believe that ultimately God will raise up the man who is best fit for the task.