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Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley insists he doesn’t expect to be selected pope

ROME — A reporter had a question for Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley that she said came from her daughter. Would the leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston continue to wear his “cappuccino robe” if elected pope, the reporter asked at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

O’Malley, blushing, chuckled along with the reporters gathered at the Pontifical North American College, where the US cardinals are staying before the conclave to select a new leader of the church.

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“I have worn this uniform for over 40 years, and I presume I will wear it until I die, because I don’t expect to be elected pope,” he said. He stammered slightly. “So -- I don’t expect to have a change of wardrobe.”

O’Malley, a Capuchin friar whose order’s name derives from the brown hooded habits its members wear, has been deflecting a lot of questions lately about the possibility he could replace Benedict XVI, whose retirement last month triggered the meeting of cardinals. Most Vatican analysts consider the notion of an American pope a long shot, but some say that O’Malley’s chances could improve if no consensus emerges after a few days of voting.

O’Malley answered questions from the press for about 30 minutes with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston. O’Malley, who holds a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature, answered two questions in Spanish during the session and then addressed a scrum of Spanish-language media afterward.

The cardinals are spending the week in “general congregations,” meetings in which they discuss the issues facing the church in advance of the conclave. Cardinals who are over 80 years old -- the cut-off age to be eligible to vote in the conclave -- are invited to join the general congregations.

As described by cardinals and Vatican representatives, there is little back and forth in these sessions; cardinals sign up to speak and essentially make speeches, one at a time, without debate.

A half-hour coffee break gives the cardinals time to chat informally. DiNardo said the congregations were “pretty serene -- it’s not campaign-like.”

The cardinals are under an oath of secrecy to refrain from discussing the content of the sessions with anyone but each other.

They have not set a date for the conclave, nor have they decided when they will set a date. DiNardo said all of the electors must be present for the date to be set, and according to the Vatican, five of the 115 electors are still on their way to Rome.

O’Malley said the cardinals want to be sure they allow themselves enough time to weigh issues and papal contenders before the conclave in order to make sure the voting itself did not “drag on.” All the conclaves in the last century have ended within five days; in earlier days, the voting sessions lasted for months or even years.

O’Malley and DiNardo said that cardinals who, like themselves, were in charge of dioceses, hoped to return home by March 24 for Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, because of the responsibilities that await. But the prelates said the cardinals do not want to rush, either, because of the importance of the decision at hand.

“This is the most important decision that some of us will ever make, and we need to give it the time that’s necessary,” O’Malley said.

Church law requires that conclaves begin no more than 20 days after a pope vacates his office. But it does not appear that, as a group, the cardinals are in a rush. They declined to return to the Vatican’s Pope Pius VI Hall for afternoon sessions Tuesday and Wednesday.

They plan to gather at 5 p.m. Wednesday for a special prayer service at St. Peter’s Basilica, the massive and ornate late Renaissance church that dominates St. Peter’s Square.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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