By Paul Tennant
---- — Cardinal Sean O’Malley said he has bought a two-way plane ticket to Rome, but local Catholics cannot help but wonder if the archbishop of Boston might end up being elected the next pope.
After all, no less an ecclesiastical expert than John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has noted that the Italian press has put O’Malley on a “short list” of “papabili’’ — Italian for those regarded as capable of serving as leader of the Catholic Church.
O’Malley is among the 117 cardinals who will assemble to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who stunned the church and the world by announcing last week he will resign as of Feb. 28 due to declining health.
“Certainly he has a lot of the capabilities,” Betty Desjardins, pastoral associate at Sacred Hearts Church in Bradford, said of O’Malley.
Desjardins, who has a background in campus ministry and assists Sacred Hearts Pastor the Rev. John Delaney in the administration of the parish, credited O’Malley with providing effective leadership for the archdiocese in the wake of the sex abuse scandal.
During his tenure as bishop of Fall River and Palm Springs, Fla., O’Malley was known for removing pedophiles from active ministry and not shuffling them to other parishes. He has continued that policy during his decade of service in Boston.
”He’s a humble man,” Desjardins said, noting that O’Malley usually wears the simple dress and sandals of a Franciscan priest.
”He’s a fine candidate,” Desjardins said. But as to whether O’Malley has a chance of being the first American pope, “I kind of don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said.
”It’s anybody’s guess,” the Rev. Timothy Kearney, pastor of All Saints Church in Haverhill, said of the possibility of O’Malley becoming pope.
Kearney, who has led All Saints for two years, said the talk about O’Malley becoming pope “shows the respect the cardinal commands.”
”If he’s selected, he’d be an excellent choice,” Kearney said.
It has been widely suggested that because the United States is the world’s most powerful nation, it’s unlikely that the cardinals would choose a pope from this country. Indeed, going back hundreds of years, the powerful Catholic countries — France, Spain and Austria-Hungary — never had one of their cardinals elected to the papacy.
For about 450 years, until Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, became Pope John Paul II in 1978, all of the pontiffs came from Italy, which was divided into many small city-states for most of that period.
Dennis Shank, 62, of Lawrence, a lifelong Catholic and parishioner of St. Patrick Church, is among those who don’t think an American cardinal will ascend to the papal throne.
”He’s (O’Malley) not going to be pope,’’ he said. “It won’t happen. The Vatican will not elect an American. America is a superpower. To have the holy father picked from that superpower is too much. They’re not going to pick a pope from an existing superpower.
”Cardinals who enter the conclave thinking they’re the next pope will leave the conclave a cardinal,’’ he said. “We can remember back to 1978 at the death of John Paul I. Everyone expected another Italian. Instead they picked a Pole. And when John Paul II died, they picked a German. I do not believe anybody from North America will be picked, and that includes Canadians.’’
Catholics believe there is only one vote that truly counts when the new pope is elected: That of the Holy Spirit, whom the cardinals call upon when they sing the ancient hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit) during the conclave.
“It’s up to the Holy Spirit,” Shank said. “It is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who comes upon the cardinals, and they pick because it is God’s choice. I can’t emphasize that enough.’’
John Cronin, 76, of North Andover, a parishioner at St. Michael Church in that town, said he doesn’t have much of an opinion on the talk about O’Malley becoming pope.
“There’s one guy that’s going to make the decision, and we can’t talk to him. It’s got to be by the Holy Spirit,” Cronin said. “Whatever he does, I know it’s going to be OK, because God doesn’t make mistakes. We do.”
Staff Writer Mark E. Vogler contributed to this report.