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Cardinals fan out among Rome's churches

| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 7:54 p.m.

ROME — Roman Catholic cardinals asked for prayers of support, joked with parishioners and kissed squirming babies.

On the eve of what might be the most important decision of their lives, the men who will choose the next pope made their likely last scheduled public appearances on Sunday, preaching at churches across the city while attempting to dodge journalists.

Several alluded to the conclave, the private meeting in the Sistine Chapel in which 115 of these most senior prelates will elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. It will start on Tuesday.

Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl, formerly bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, asked for his parishioners' prayers and support at the end of a brief sermon in 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. “All we can say about the conclave is we are having one.”

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 in the centuries-old Santi Apostoli basilica (the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles) near Rome's famous Trevi Fountain, he said 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 worshippers 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.

In the nearby church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer was met by reporter as he arrived to lead Mass. Scherer makes many short lists of possible popes.

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 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.

The famously gregarious Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York received something of a rock-star welcome at the packed church of Nostra Signora di Guadalupe in a working-class suburb of Rome and seemed to lap it up.

Accompanied by the resident choir and a group of American priests, Dolan led Mass after stopping to kiss babies in the crowd. Inside the modern church, he won applause and laughter from parishioners by saying, in accomplished if heavily accented Italian, “This is a big crowd, let's do two collections!”

Asked after the Mass about the challenge of picking papal candidates with his fellow cardinals, Dolan said, “You get to know them, you listen to them, you say a lot of prayers, and it works.”

Would it be quick?

“I don't know,” he said. “I hope so.”

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