Has the next pope spent the last few years working in . . . Braintree?
As cardinals around the world prepare to elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor next month, speculation is raging about potential candidates — and a number of Italian Vatican-watchers have begun to mention Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley.
In a blog entry Tuesday, John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, cited six Italian journalists or media outlets that had pointed to the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston as a possible, if unlikely, contender for the papacy.
"It may well be this is a boomlet that lasts 24 hours and then fades from view," Allen said in an interview yesterday. "The novelty I think is that the Italian Vatican writers who tend to be the ones who set the tone for public discussion . . . have seized on O'Malley in a way I don't think any one of us saw coming."
A spokesman for the archdiocese reiterated O'Malley's remarks from a press conference at the archdiocesan headquarters in Braintree last week, during which the cardinal pooh-poohed the prospect. "He is not losing any sleep over it," said Terrence C. Donilon. "As he said last week, it is not something he aspires to."
The notion of O'Malley as pope did seem a little far-fetched to many other Vatican watchers.
"The reason people pay attention to the Italian press is because they have good sources among the Italian cardinals, so you get quite a feel for what the gossip is there," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "But you also have to take it with a grain of salt, because the Italian press are more like novelists than reporters."
Allen writes that there are two main reasons for the flurry of interest in O'Malley, who came to Boston in 2003: his reputation as a reformer in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and his image as a humble Capuchin friar with no interest in the trappings of wealth. The latter is viewed by many in the Italian press as an asset in a Vatican riven by infighting and allegations of financial corruption.
Allen cited Agenzia Giornalistica Italia, which recently praised O'Malley for "restoring credibility to the church after the 'escape' to Rome of his predecessor, Bernard Law" by reaching settlements with victims of sexual abuse, selling the chancery to help cover the cost, and moving into a modest rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.
Allen also quoted Vatican writer Paolo Rodari: "It's no accident that he's a prince of the church who prefers his simple brown Capuchin habit to the sartorial splendor to which his office entitles him."
O'Malley is 68, about the ideal age, neither too old nor too young; he is also close to Benedict, who made him a cardinal in 2008 and sent him to evaluate the Irish church's response to the sexual abuse scandal in 2010.
He holds a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature – he uses a Spanish-
language keyboard on his laptop — and has worked extensively in the Hispanic community in the United States and with church leaders in Latin America, where more than 40 percent of Catholics live.
And as the Vatican searches for better ways of communicating with young people in a high-speed, high-tech media environment, O'Malley was the first cardinal to start his own blog. He updates it weekly, offering the world a small window into the life of a cardinal.
On the other hand, as Allen notes, O'Malley is shy, and he has sometimes seemed to despair about the burden placed on his shoulders as bishop amid the worst years of the abuse crisis and church closings.
"Whoever is fueling this boomlet, it's not Sean O'Malley," Allen said.
Peter Borre, a Boston lawyer who has advocated for churches closed by the archdiocese, said it is very difficult at this point to make predictions.
"In the more contested conclaves, at this stage, there is ... a lot of disinformation that is put out," he said. "It is intended sometimes to either embarrass somebody or to test the waters." He said he was not aiming his comments at O'Malley, but "some of the names being put out are ridiculous."
James Weiss, a theology professor at Boston College, said O'Malley's many assets may be outweighed by his lack of Vatican experience, as well as his personality: "He does not have the kind of large, expansive public presence that did wonders for the papacy under John Paul II, and which people have really missed in Benedict."
And as Allen noted, O'Malley has his critics. Some say the list of Boston clergy accused of sexual abuse, which O'Malley posted online, came too late and remains incomplete.
A much greater problem, however, is the fact that he is an American. "People see the US even now as the superpower dominating the world, politically, militarily, economically, culturally," said the Rev. Thomas Worcester, a historian at the College of the Holy Cross. "They don't want to see religious dominance on top of that."
There has been some speculation, however, that in an age in which US geopolitical power is waning by some measures, and in which globalization has diminished the importance of nationality, the cardinals might countenance an American.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the voluble archbishop of New York and president of the US Conference of Catholic bishops, has been mentioned much more often than O'Malley, at least in the United States.
John Thavis, author of "The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church," which comes out this week, noted that the buzz around O'Malley so far is coming almost entirely from journalists.
"There is a vacuum here because the cardinals aren't talking much, and certainly they are not naming names, and Italian journalists in particular love to fill that vacuum," said Thavis.
But he also said that one of the interesting dynamics of a conclave is that the media can influence the outcome. In 2005, he said, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a well-known figure who impressed his peers with his management of the papal transition. But more than one cardinal mentioned to Thavis that he had read in the paper that Ratzinger seemed to be gaining traction.
"And so I wouldn't discount totally the idea that the media can have an influence on this, especially in the early stages of defining who could be a good 'papabili,' " or potential pope, he said.
Worcester, the papal historian, said Clement XIV, who reigned from 1769 to 1774, was the last Franciscan elected pope. (Capuchins are a branch of the Franciscans.)
Asked about O'Malley's prospects, Rocco Palmo, who runs the widely read blog Whispers in the Loggia, said there are 117 voting cardinals, and about 25 days till the first vote.
"Over the next 25 days," he said, "I expect to hear every one of the 117 cardinals somehow, somewhere touted as the next pope."