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For the small percentage they comprise of Catholics worldwide, Italians are disproportionately represented in the Roman Curia and ecclesial governance more broadly, not to mention their long history of native-born popes. And while the last memory of an Italian pope is now three decades old, today’s  populus Romanus has not let go of its special concern for the Roman pontiff. If the Corriere della Sera ‘s  polling  can be trusted, a strong current of Italians (it claims nearly forty percent) has expressed admiration for Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley among the field of  papabile  cardinals. Along with his pastoral and theological strengths are qualities that resonate profoundly with the loyalties and hopes of many Italians. He is a Capuchin Franciscan like the nation’s beloved Padre Pio. He speaks Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese flawlessly, and strikes most as humble and consummately apolitical.

Today O’Malley offered Mass at his titular church, Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Roman landmark famed as the home of Bernini’s masterwork,  St. Theresa in Ecstasy . The church has received much attention of late, if perhaps for indecorous reasons, being a stop on the city’s Angels and Demons tour. But at least Dan Brown’s fantasy manages to commit the irony of bringing tourists into churches instead of away from them.

The aged Carmelite friars who serve as the church’s caretakers excitedly said they had never in recent memory witnessed a crowd of today’s size. Perhaps forty print journalists, cameramen, and reporters packed into the transepts of the diminutive space, one of them having to be pulled away to allow O’Malley to process to the altar. A large congregation also attended, most of them natives, judging by their laughter when O’Malley joked in Italian of his desire to take the Bernini statue back to Boston. The press were largely Italian as well, save a number from Boston news outlets.

As he has indicated repeatedly in interviews, O’Malley bristles at the idea of his cause for Petrine ministry, often averring his desire not to waste his return flight ticket to Boston once the conclave is concluded. Of course, the fervor among Italians amounts to little more than speculation, and speculation can be a very idle pastime. But the excitement may have a dimension one can call proper and holy as well. Far from imposing political categories on the papal election, many admire O’Malley not simply for what he can do, but for who he is, and the sense he emanates of being a Christian disciple.

Of more frivolous note, it is worth noting that Cardinal O’Malley (one Italian priest insisted he take the name Pope Francis I) would be the first bearded pope in three centuries. Pope Innocent XII was the last, sporting a moustache and goatee. Still more tongue-in-cheek, one wonders if this fact might warm Eastern churches to overtures of reconciliation with the West, given that the question of bearded clergy served to sour the cultural divide that accompanied the Great Schism. Perhaps more a propos, one wonders about the great possibilities for an Irish-descended pope to inspire reconciliation and calm in the troubled ecclesial life of Ireland and Scotland.

As ever, the Church will decide.

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