As their church's cardinals gathered in Vatican City to select a new pope, Catholic schoolchildren in the Baltimore area joined the worldwide buzz over the secret balloting process in an online chat with a fairly well-placed source: Archbishop William E. Lori.
"I'm not going to predict who the Holy Father is going to be," Lori told eighth-grade students at 20 schools in the Baltimore Archdiocese on Monday. "But what we can't miss is that at least two of the American cardinals have been spoken about as possible candidates."
Lori, who took over almost a year ago as head of the Baltimore archdiocese, the oldest in the U.S., noted that the New York and Boston cardinals, Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley, respectively, have emerged as potential vote-getters when the conclave to select a replacement for the retired Pope Benedict XVI begins Tuesday.
The church's 115 cardinals, who will pick a pope from within their ranks, have been attending a series of pre-conclave gatherings since March 4. They have been discussing a myriad of issues facing the church — so many that some cardinals tried to extend the talks and delay the beginning of papal balloting.
The effort ultimately was unsuccessful, and the cardinals concluded their advance meetings Monday morning. They spent the rest of the day talking privately among themselves over who should replace the 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned last month, saying he no longer had the strength to carry out his duties.
Pope Benedict's surprise resignation — the first in nearly 600 years — as well as recent church sex scandals and mismanagement of the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, has heightened interest in this week's papal conclave, Lori said in an interview after the online chat.
"No doubt about it, the church has been in the spotlight," said Lori, who recently found himself in the midst of another issue facing the church when he led the American church's high-profile fight with the White House over a mandate to include contraception in insurance plans.
"In a time of transition, various questions are going to come to the forefront," he said. "The role of the next Holy Father is to address such problems effectively and drive forward the church's mission to teach the gospel."
On Tuesday, the cardinals will attend a pre-conclave Mass with the public in St. Peter's Basilica before filing into the Sistine Chapel at 4:30 p.m. local time for the first ballot.
With a two-thirds majority required to select a pope, it is unlikely a pope will be selected in the first round of balloting. French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois has said there are as many as a dozen candidates who might be named in the first round of ballots.
The cardinals are scheduled to vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon every day starting on Wednesday until they make their selection.
The cardinals' selection will provide a window into the direction that the majority would like the church to go after some scandal-plagued years.
For instance, the Vatican bank has long been tainted by money-laundering allegations. While Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, on Monday addressed attempts to bring transparency to the bank, the cardinals are said to be to be split into roughly two camps. There are those who wish to reform the bureaucracy and back Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, and those who work at the Vatican who back Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, who has himself worked in the Curia.
Other cardinals, such as the Americans Dolan and O'Malley as well as the Canadian, Marc Ouellet, are expected to garner some early votes as well.
One contender to become pope is an African — the Ghanaian cardinal, Peter Turkson; if selected, he would be the fourth from that continent to become pope. Turkson heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which was started in 1967 and focuses on social justice and human rights.
"Now, I'm not taking bets on who the new Holy Father is going to be," Lori told the Baltimore students Monday, "but it's nice to know there is an African cardinal who is in the running."
He also said, "It's kind of nice that really for the first time Americans, U.S. citizens and a citizen of Canada, are being seriously mentioned to become the Holy Father."
Lori said he thought the conclave may be short, given that the cardinals have already been meeting in Vatican City for a week. But some church watchers have said discussions about how the new pope would confront challenges could lengthen the conclave.
In the meantime, Vatican insiders and regular Catholics alike continue speculation over whose names might turn up on the cardinals' ballots, which Lori described to the school students on Monday as rectangular pieces of paper that read, "I elect as supreme pontiff…" with a blank space to write a name.
Lori said he will learn who the new pope is when everyone else does — "when the white smoke comes out" from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, signaling that the cardinals have made their selection.