3 Americans considered contenders for pope

| Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 12:09 a.m.

VATICAN CITY — Three Americans, including former Pittsburgh bishop Donald Wuerl, are considered contenders as Roman Catholic cardinals meet Tuesday to elect a pope.

Wuerl, 72, the cardinal of Washington, is one of 115 who will vote on a successor to Benedict XVI — the first pope to resign in six centuries.

At least one veteran Vatican watcher considers him a “compelling” candidate.

As cardinals finished their general congregation meetings on Monday, some walked through St. Peter's Square, mobbed by journalists and onlookers eager to see a man who might become the church's 266th pope.

“We are excited to get started,” said Toronto's Cardinal Thomas Collins, as Italian police struggled to hold back the media.

Before the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict as pope, three favorites were often mentioned.

According to John Allen, Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, two of Italy's most respected writers on the Vatican say New York's charismatic, media-savvy Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, “has strong support heading into the conclave, so one has to take his candidacy seriously.”

Allen said the cardinals are looking for someone to set a global vision that appeals to non-Western Catholics, to bring the church's evangelical side to the wider world, and to shake up the Vatican bureaucracy.

Dolan's energy and steely resolve appeal to some. Others are bothered by his lack of foreign-language fluency and a gregarious nature that is considered “so American,” said Dr. Terrence Tilley, chairman of Fordham University's theology department and a professor of Catholic theology.

Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, 68, is “the public darling in the run-up to the conclave, the cardinal that ordinary people just can't stop talking about,” wrote Allen. “His plain-brown Capuchin habit, his beard, his smile and humility, have stirred a sort of Roman love affair.”

O'Malley was raised in Western Pennsylvania and attended St. Fidelis Seminary in Herman in Butler County, which closed in 1979.

Tilley said O'Malley is perceived as a reformer and tough on priest sex-abuse scandals that rocked his diocese; he speaks several languages and worked in Asia and Latin America. “But he might be perceived as too nice of a guy,” Tilley said.

Wuerl hasn't enjoyed the media buzz of Dolan and O'Malley but “is actually the most compelling American candidate,” according to Allen. A native of Pittsburgh and its bishop for 18 years, Wuerl studied and worked in Rome for more than a decade, “giving him a cosmopolitan look on the church,” Allen wrote.

Wuerl has publicly stressed a pope's “pastoral” role and the “challenge of faith in a secular world.” He speaks Italian and is considered an efficient manager. But he lacks working experience beyond the West, according to Tilley.

“We are in a different era from when the strong candidates consisted of three,” said Father Norman Tanner, a professor of church history at Pontifical Gregorian University. “Now we have a dozen or so.”

With two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics living outside Western countries, he said, “it is perfectly reasonable now to consider the non-Europeans” for pontiff.

Although the odds of an American pope generally were rated near zero in the past, this time, three American cardinals stand out.

“If the conclave quickly ends by Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, then one of the front-runners will have been elected. If the conclave goes beyond Thursday morning, then an American might be a compromise candidate,” said Tilley.

The Italian press considers the leading candidates to be Italy's Angelo Scola of Milan, Canadian Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, and Brazilian Odilo Pedro Scherer of San Paulo — but warns readers to take such predictions with a grain of salt.

“All this is pure speculation,” Tilley said. “I would not bet even a soda pop on this.”

Archbishop Piero Marini, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, insists that “when those cardinals are in the Sistine Chapel, the entire church throughout the world will be standing with them” — and the votes they cast will be “a deep spiritual experience, not some kind of a political machination.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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