ROME — After days of speculation that he might become the first American to lead the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley broke his silence Thursday to voice his relief that he had not been chosen.
The Boston prelate, in his first public remarks since the conclave that elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, expressed admiration for Pope Francis, but not envy for his job. Many Italians had rooted for O’Malley.
“If the only prerequisite for being pope was not wanting the job, I would have been the most qualified cardinal in the conclave,” O’Malley quipped at a briefing. He said he was happy to get back to Boston for Holy Week and showed he was equally happy he would not have to lead the life of a pope.
“He is a prisoner of a museum,” O’Malley said. “It is not a wonderful life.”
O’Malley drew chortles when he joked that the Italian press made the conclave feel “like the primaries,” but he struck a more emotional chord when he described the experience of choosing a pope.
Each of the cardinals had to swear an oath of secrecy, promising not to reveal the substance of what went on during the conclave that elected the pope Wednesday; the penalty for breaking it is excommunication.
But O’Malley was able to share a few details about the experience of participating.
“When you walk up with a ballot in your hand and stand before the image of the ‘Last Judgment’ and say, ‘With Christ as my witness, I am voting for the one who I feel is the one that God wants to do this,’ that is a great responsibility,” O’Malley said. His voice cracked with emotion as he described watching Wednesday night as Pope Francis calmed a cheering crowd of tens of thousands and asked them to pray with him.
“It was very moving,” he said.
It was the first time that O’Malley had voted for a pope since becoming a cardinal in 2006. He has led the Archdiocese of Boston since 2003.
“I never imagined as a child that someday I would be part of a conclave,’’ O’Malley said.
O’Malley and the College of Cardinals celebrated Mass with Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel on Thursday afternoon.
O’Malley said he has high hopes for Francis, who, like O’Malley, prefers a simple lifestyle and is known for his work in the poorest sections of his archdiocese, in Buenos Aires. O’Malley, a fluent Spanish and Portuguese speaker with strong ties to the church in Latin America, said selecting a pope from that part of the world also carried significance for Boston, with its growing immigrant community.
“I am looking forward to inviting him someday to Boston,’’ O’Malley said.
The selection of the 266th pope, he said, was “a moment of great joy for the whole Catholic world,” coming after the sudden decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign, a move that highlighted the church’s crises of increased secularism, allegations of corruption in Vatican leadership, and ongoing revelations of sexual abuse by priests.
Pope Francis “is a man who has a great sense of mission, and he values transparency, and I have great confidence that he will further the process of healing in our church,” O’Malley said, adding that the two had lunch together Wednesday before the final votes of the conclave.
Bergoglio, the first Jesuit pope and first non-European since the Middle Ages, decided to call himself Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order to which O’Malley belongs. O’Malley said he appreciated the pope’s choice of the name, and said it befitted a man who, like St. Francis, has lived in humble fashion and dedicated his life to helping the poor.
That humility was on display Thursday when Pope Francis made a point to stop by the Vatican-owned residence where he had been staying to pick up his luggage — and pick up the bill.
“He was concerned about giving an example about what priests and bishops should do,’’ said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
It was not the only populist departure from the more traditional papacy of Francis’s predecessor.
After his election Wednesday night, Francis turned down a ride back to the hotel in the special papal sedan so that he could travel on a bus with the other cardinals.
After dinner with the cardinals, he accepted a toast and, in an acknowledgment of the challenges faced by the church that was at once solemn and wistful, he told the electors, ‘‘ ‘May God forgive you for what you have done,’ ’’ said Lombardi.
The new pope started Thursday by eschewing the papal sedan a second time as he traveled in a simple Vatican car to St. Mary Major Basilica, where he prayed before an icon of the Madonna.
Lombardi said that Francis had also prayed at an altar where the founder of his religious order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, once celebrated Mass.
The Vatican spokesman said that because Francis spoke by phone with the former pope last night, he will not go to visit Benedict at Castel Gandolfo immediately, but will do so in the future.
Lombardi also confirmed that during his visit to St. Mary Major, Francis “discreetly’’ greeted Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who was archpriest of the basilica before he retired from that post.
Law stepped down as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after failing to remove sexual predator priests from their pastoral posts in the archdiocese.
The encounter between Francis and Law drew a sharp rebuke from David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“Of all the church officials to visit from the United States, we are disappointed that Pope Francis has chosen the worst of them,” Clohessy said in a statement.
O’Malley has asked for Masses to be offered in the Boston archdiocese Tuesday, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, in Thanksgiving for the election of Francis.
Before going back to Boston and back to business, O’Malley underscored his delight that he will be on that plane to Logan Airport by recounting a story about the late Pope John Paul II sneaking out of the Vatican so he could go skiing.
“I hope that Pope Francis will be able to sneak out occasionally to go to a tango show,’’ O’Malley said.