The Americans Who Might Be Pope

The words "American" and "pope" have rarely been said in the same breath. But in Rome this week, the names of three U.S. cardinals have been all the buzz. Timothy Dolan of New York, Sean O'Malley of Boston, and Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., are being taken seriously as potential candidates to become the next pontiff.

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The list of contenders for pope is nowhere near as clear as the candidate list in a presidential primary or the NCAA playoff bracket. Still, some names do get mentioned, including three cardinals from the United States.

NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Let's not get too carried away here: all three American candidates are still considered long-shots to be named pope.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN: Listen, I think I've got a better chance of taking A-Rod's place at third base than I do Benedict XVI.

ROSE: That's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, joking with reporters last week that he's more likely to succeed Alex Rodriguez, the aging star of the New York Yankees.

Dolan is an outgoing guy who once delivered part of a homily wearing a cheesehead hat in honor of the Green Bay Packers when he was the archbishop of Milwaukee. Dolan is also at ease on camera. Here he is roasting President Barack Obama and candidate Mitt Romney at a dinner in New York last fall.

DOLAN: Mr. President and Governor Romney, do you know what the Holy Father asked me to tell the two of you? Well, neither do I, because he said it in Latin, and I don't understand a word of it.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Dolan does speak Italian. And he's made quite an impression this month in Rome, says David Gibson, reporter for the Religion News Service, and a biographer of Benedict XVI.

DAVID GIBSON: Well, his upside is gregarious, outgoing - the exact opposite of Benedict XVI. But that strength is also his weakness in terms of the Cardinals here. They frankly are looking for a little more gravitas from a pope, and maybe a little less out in-your-face American-ness.

ROSE: If you're looking for the anti-Dolan, you could do worse than Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, a bearded, soft-spoken man who dresses in humble brown robes. Here's O'Malley talking in 2011 about how his background as a Franciscan missionary informed his leadership in Boston.

CARDINAL SEAN O'MALLEY: For St. Francis, of course, poverty is the center of his spiritual life. And poverty is complete trust in God's loving care for us. And so I've taken on these responsibilities, trusting that God will help us and see us through.

ROSE: Cardinal Sean - as he likes to be called - has earned a lot of respect for his handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal in Boston, says Terrence Tilley, who teaches theology at Fordham University.

TERRENCE TILLEY: O'Malley is liked in Rome because he has been thrown into troubled spots and has cooled the fires rather well.

ROSE: But O'Malley has very little experience in the Vatican, which could work against him.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has served in Rome. He's considered an effective administrator, who was also a bishop in his native Pittsburgh. And that could appeal to the other cardinals, says David Gibson.

GIBSON: The one thing they all say they're going to be looking for is somebody who can reform, tame the Roman curia - the pope's kind of civil service, which is more like a kind of Renaissance court than it is an actual kind of bureaucracy.

ROSE: Though Wuerl himself downplayed the chances of an American pope before leaving Washington for Rome last week.

CARDINAL DONALD WUERL: I don't think it would be seen as a very good thing if the pope, who's supposed to be reminding governments of their responsibilities to build peace, if he were from the same superpower.

ROSE: That's still the conventional wisdom in Rome and elsewhere. But the odds against an American pontiff aren't as long as they used to be.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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