By Yadira Betances
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — As the papal conclave meets to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, local residents are praying and fasting so the Holy Spirit will help the cardinal electors in choosing a new leader for the Catholic Church.
Many of those praying and fasting hope that Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez, Archbishop of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, might be the next pontiff.
Among them is Debbie Papalia of North Andover, who was assigned to pray for Lopez Rodriguez by the website Adopt a Cardinal. The site is a way for Catholics to pray for all the cardinals who are voting to decide who will become the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Papalia was assigned Lopez Rodriguez at random, but takes her promise to pray for him very seriously.
“All the cardinals need prayers, they need a spirit of truth. They can’t be compromised in any way because this job is well beyond what a human can do,” Papalia said.
Papalia first heard about the program on a radio show, then visited its website, adoptacardinal.org.
“I saw it as something powerful,” said Papalia as her reason for wanting to pray for the cardinal. “I didn’t want to be on standby with my faith.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, Lopez Rodriguez is among the top 11 candidates for pope. In Lawrence, where 76 percent of the population is of Dominican descent, many are waiting to see if the cardinal who visited St. Mary of the Assumption Church in 2003 will become the new spiritual leader of all Catholics.
“He was cordial and pleasant,” said the Rev. William Waters, then pastor at St. Mary.
“He said he felt at home with so many Dominicans there, and was happy to see so many people from his country practicing their faith,” said Waters, now campus minister at Merrimack College.
In the Dominican Republic yesterday, there was a prayer service for the cardinals and the papal election, said the Rev. Manuel Ruiz via a telephone interview from the island country.
“His years of service to the church are impressive which gives him an edge. We are praying that he may be selected, inspired by the Holy Spirit,” Ruiz said.
“Knowing the struggles facing the church today, it’s going to take a lot of prayer and discernment during the whole process,” Ruiz said.
Lopez Rodriguez was ordained a priest in 1961, became bishop in 1978 and was named cardinal in 1991. In addition to his native Spanish, Lopez Rodriguez speaks English, Italian, German, Portuguese and Latin.
In his native country, he was a university rector and president of the Conference of the Dominican Episcopate. Pope John Paul II appointed him as first bishop when the Diocese of San Francisco de Macoris was formed in 1978.
In 2005, he was a cardinal elector in the papal conclave that selected retired Pope Benedict XVI.
This is the second time Lopez Rodriguez is being consider a viable candidate for the papacy. After the death of Pope John Paul he dismissed the notion while visiting Lawrence.
“I don’t think about those things,” Lopez Rodriguez said in 2003. “I think the Holy Spirit has already chosen its candidate and that is the one who will be chosen ... We have to pray so that the Lord sends us the pope that the Church needs to replace John Paul II, who has been a great leader.”
Jose Genao of Lawrence served as an altar boy with Lopez Rodriguez during his visit to Lawrence.
“He is a righteous man, but when he needs to tell the truth, nothing holds him back,” Genao said.
“If he is elected, I’d be forever grateful to God and the Holy Spirit,” Genao said. “It would be a blessing to the world and to America.”
Benny Espaillat of Haverhill has known Lopez Rodriguez since the 1980s when he led an educational and cultural program at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Dominican Republic, where the cardinal was dean.
“One of my hopes is that the next pope comes from the New World because we’re in an new era and the role of the new pope should be one of being open to work in collaboratives,” Espaillat said.
“He’s very down to earth, sincere and a very capable leader,” said Espaillat former director of the Hispanic Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Boston. “He doesn’t always say what people want to hear. He is an advocate for the church and is committed to working with the poor.”
“One of his qualities is that he says what he needs to say without wavering, and that’s something very good,” said Orlando Vargas of Haverhill, pointing out that when the Dominican Republic was struck by a hurricane in 1998, Lopez Rodriguez publicly denounced military officials for allegedly funneling donated relief supplies.
“The church is in a very vulnerable position and we need a leader that can reach out to people, a shepherd has to be with his sheep,” Vargas said.