The friars sat in their chairs, clad in brown robes, eyes trained on the television. Was it possible? Could one of their own, a fellow Capuchin Franciscan, be about to step out on the balcony, to greet 1.2 billion Roman Catholics as the next pope?
“It’s like being on the top of a roller coaster,” admitted Brother Matt Janeczko, so close to the edge of his chair that he nearly slid off.
But no, it was not to be. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop Boston and one of a handful considered a possible candidate to be pope, did not emerge from behind the curtain. But the man who did, a Jesuit from Argentina, greatly moved the Boston friars, especially his chosen name: Francis.
“I’m blown away,” said Janeczko, gaping at images of the new pope in the television room at the San Lorenzo Friary in Jamaica Plain. “The only word I can think of is he looks like a fisherman. He looks like a man who will seek out the lost and the lonely. . . . In taking the name Francis, he will do it as a brother.”
The new pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, chose the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, known for living simply and helping the poor.
O’Malley, as he had all along modestly predicted, will be able to use the return leg of his round-trip ticket to Rome. But he will arrive in Boston with a much higher international profile than before the papal election.
While it may be impossible to ever determine how close he came to the papacy, O’Malley — as well as fellow US Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York — rewrote the conventional wisdom that no American can be considered a serious candidate to lead the Roman Catholic Church.
The two US cardinals generated tremendous attention in the Italian press, and O’Malley was cited by Vatican specialists as a top-tier candidate, due in part to his work repairing dioceses mired in sex abuse scandals — in Fall River, Palm Beach, and Boston — as well as his unassuming, modest style.
He wears sandals and the simple brown robes of his religious order.
After becoming leader of the Boston Archdiocese in 2003, O’Malley also sold the archbishop’s mansion in Brighton and moved to a rectory in the South End.
The gambling public agreed with the analysts: Heavy wagering on O’Malley at offshore bookmakers pushed the Boston cardinal into the top five most popular candidates, according to odds makers.
Bergoglio, on the other hand, was listed Tuesday as a 25-1 long shot at the betting site paddypower.com.
The analysts may have talked up the wrong cardinals, but they identified the attributes the conclave was looking for: When Bergoglio became archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 he moved out of the archbishop’s palace for an apartment, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
Janeczko, who is 28, and Brother Jim Peterson, 41, said they were not specifically rooting for O’Malley to become pope. They simply prayed for God to reveal the right choice to the cardinals.
“I don’t know I’d wish that on anybody,” said Peterson. “It’s a tough job.”
O’Malley visits the Friary regularly, they said, and often tells stories about missionary work.
“When Sean comes here, he comes as our brother,” said Janeczko.
To have someone they know so well figure prominently in the world-wide conversation over potential popes was “surreal,” he said.
“It’s so unlike our DNA to put ourselves in the limelight,” Janeczko said. “It has been a great moment to talk about our faith and evangelize. If this wasn’t happening, [the media] wouldn’t be here asking us about the Capuchins.”
After watching hours of live video of the chimney at the Sistine Chapel, the friars leaned forward at the first wisps of smoke.
“That looks white to me,” said Janeczko. “I have the chills. . . . This is what Catholicism is, people from all over the world probably are rooting for their own guy, but whoever appears on that balcony, they’re all going to cheer.”