VATICAN CITY — The archbishop of Boston, dressed more often in the humble brown robe of his religious order than a cardinal’s regalia, has emerged as an unlikely star amid the drama unfolding in Rome.
Vatican analysts for the leading Italian newspapers have repeatedly listed Cardinal Sean O’Malley as one of the favorite contenders in the conclave that began yesterday and ended its first day with a plume of black smoke indicating a pope had yet to be elected.
As recently as two weeks ago, O’Malley hadn’t appeared on the lists of papabili, or cardinals with papal potential, that church watchers pore over each morning like sports scores, even though only the cardinal-electors know how they will vote.
Vatican observers said no American cardinal could win: A superpower pope risked mixing church and U.S. interests. O’Malley is also a Capuchin Franciscan, and few members of religious orders have led the church.
But O’Malley arrived to a country in an anti-establishment mood.
A comedian, Beppe Grillo, had grabbed a quarter of the parliamentary vote, leaving the political leadership of Italy in limbo.
The Vatican central administration, or Curia, had been weathering a string of scandals. Benedict XVI’s own butler had leaked the former pontiff’s private papers, revealing feuding, corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the bureaucracy. The secretive Vatican bank had recently ousted a president for incompetence and is under pressure for greater financial transparency.
In the cardinal, Italians saw a white knight. The 68-year-old O’Malley has spent his career as a bishop cleaning up dioceses shattered by child sex abuse. From O’Malley’s lengthy track record, one story seems to have captured the most attention: after he arrived in Boston in 2003, then the epicenter of the church scandal, O’Malley decided to sell the Italian Renaissance mansion which had been home to the previous four Boston archbishops. The millions of dollars for the sale would help pay settlements with victims.