ROME (CNS) — It took a “papabile” American cardinal as guest celebrant one Sunday to fill the pews of a small Roman church, which is normally trafficked only by hordes of backpack-slinging tourists.
Instead of dog-eared guidebooks in hand, people were actually looking for hymnals, extra copies of which had to be fetched from the sacristy by parish assistants.
The narrow church, which holds about 100 people, was packed standing-room only on the Fourth Sunday of Lent with both Italians and Americans, and dozens of journalists.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston visited his titular church of Santa Maria della Vittoria March 10 with the no-nonsense, businesslike air of a pastor who was there simply to preside over a liturgy.
Wearing his bright scarlet cardinal robes, he alighted from a dark sedan with Vatican City State license plates and strode straight up the steps: no waving or fanfare as he moved confidently through the crowd of cameramen.
Once inside, he put on his cornered-biretta hat and sprinkled holy water as he marched down the center aisle to the sacristy.
Little did he know that, while he was there to celebrate Mass for the local community, the people in the pews and the Discalced Carmelites who run the church were there to unabashedly cheer him on as the next pope.
“Eminence, we wish, and I say this with great hope, that this will be your last visit as titular cardinal,” Discalced Carmelite Father Stefano Guernelli, the church’s rector and former provincial superior, told the cardinal in his opening remarks.
He said they were praying for him to be the next pontiff, “however, without trying to push or overturn the Lord’s plans.”
“But you must promise that if our prayers are answered, your first visit as pope” will be back to “our church and yours, Santa Maria della Vittoria,” he said to rousing applause.
The priest said he had been telling journalists that “Cardinal Sean” is a “kind and friendly pastor, humble yet decisive in his actions because he truly loves the church.”
The only thing going against him “perhaps is that you are a friar and a Capuchin at that,” he said tongue-in-cheek, as the bearded Capuchin cardinal smiled.
Speaking with his deep, measured voice, Cardinal O’Malley said Mass and his homily in near perfect Italian, stumbling just a few times on the language’s tricky polysyllabic terms.
He began his homily thanking everyone for coming to pray “for our church in these days that are so important for us.”
Known for a sharp wit delivered with a poker face, the cardinal continued off-the-cuff, talking about the time he took possession of the Roman church in 2006 and teased the Carmelites that he was thinking of taking the church’s famed statue of St. Teresa of Avila, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, back to Boston.
But he said the friars told him Napoleon had tried and, like the emperor, he, too, would fail.
“So it seems to me that (the friars) have never forgiven me” because the church rector wants him to become pope, the cardinal said.
“I want to assure him that after the conclave I will come back as your cardinal and perhaps I will take St. Teresa back to Boston,” he insisted with a wry smile.
He imperceptibly then switched gears to his serious side and gave a homily based on the day’s Gospel reading of the Prodigal Son, noting how many children of God today leave their father’s house — the church — because of “ignorance, a lack of feeling welcome, negative experiences, scandals, spiritual mediocrity” and other reasons.
Just like the father in Jesus’ parable, the church too must demonstrate a welcoming evangelical joy toward its lost sheep “without creating a difficult life toward those who have drifted and who ask to return.”
Because often they have suffered a lot after being far from God and they, like all people, are looking for real joy, the kind only God can give, he said.
Lent is the perfect time to return to one’s family “and feel that joy of being at home,” he said.
He ended his 13-minute homily by praying the Holy Spirit would help him and the other cardinal electors choose a new pope “who will confirm us in the faith, do the utmost possible to make visible the love of the Good Shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep, to heal the sick and to embrace the prodigal son.”
Giulia Varrasso of Rome, who belongs to a nearby parish, said she had come to Santa Maria della Vittoria because she greatly admired the cardinal and wanted “to know him better.”
Cardinal O’Malley was her pick for pope, she said “because he’s a Franciscan” and she loves his humility, witty and laid-back style, and the religious order’s attention to the “weak and vulnerable.”
“I also like that he’s an American,” who can lead the Vatican out of its old ways of doing things and leave behind “the old mechanisms of power,” she said.
He also can renew the church “because he really understands these scandals” and has fought for more transparency, she said.
“I’m cheering for Cardinal Sean,” said Luigi Segoloni, who is originally from near Assisi, the home of St. Francis.
“We need fresh air, enough with these Italians and Europeans, for goodness sake,” said the Roman resident.
The U.S. cardinal is “very good, he made a very good impression with his homily; he has energy and he’s very fatherly,” said Segoloni.
Daughter of St. Paul Sister Germana Santos, who lived in Boston many years, praised the “very courageous measures” the cardinal took after he arrived at an archdiocese that was reeling from the spiritual and financial fallout of the sex abuse crisis.
“He sold all the prelates’ big residences and moved into the cathedral rectory” — a simple residence where he lived among his own priests “giving them an example of humility” and fraternity, she said.
An Italian woman, who asked her name not be used, said she wanted an American for pope.
Cardinal O’Malley “speaks from the heart.” While there are many good homilists out there, “you can feel his sincerity,” she said.