VATICAN CITY -- After a final meeting at which Pope Benedict XVI promised obedience to whoever among the cardinals was elected his successor, three American cardinals reflected Thursday on the future and said there were many good candidates.
"I imagine each of us has some kind of a list of primary candidates and other secondary or tertiary ones," said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. "It's a rather lengthy list at this point. It isn't winnowed."
Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who was born in Ohio but grew up in Western Pennsylvania and has been increasingly mentioned as a candidate if the cardinals break tradition and choose a pope from a superpower, said he was praying about for whom to vote. "I'm comforted by the fact that there are obvious candidates who would be competent popes," he said.
They joined Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston at a news conference after a farewell meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. The man who is now His Holiness Benedict XVI, pontiff emeritus, told the cardinals he would be praying that they find God's will in the election.
"And among you ... there is also the future pope, to whom, here today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience," Pope Benedict said.
Cardinal DiNardo, who also grew up in Western Pennsylvania and originally was a Pittsburgh priest, said he was deeply moved by the pope's humility in pledging that obedience. "That requires a great deal of prayer and help from the Holy Spirit," he said.
He and the pope renewed a longstanding joke in a poignant way during their personal farewell. Pope Benedict, remembering throngs of boisterous Texans who descended on Rome at his elevation to the college of cardinals, had always greeted him with words such as, "Uh-oh, Texas is here."
Cardinal DiNardo said he told the pope, "Today Texas is here, and we love you very much."
Cardinal George thanked Pope Benedict for his friendship. "He's been a good friend, in very subtle ways sometimes," said the Chicago prelate, who has battled cancer. "We promised to pray for each other."
The date of the conclave to elect his successor has not been set. It will be chosen by the College of Cardinals, which is not expected to begin formal meetings until Monday.
Under previous church rules, the conclave could be held no earlier than 15 days after the see or office became vacant, but that assumed a pope's unexpected death, a funeral and a week of memorial Masses in Rome.
Before abdicating, Pope Benedict rewrote the rules to allow the cardinals to vote earlier if they wished. But since there is virtually no opportunity for talk during the voting rituals in the conclave, some cardinals have indicated they prefer a longer period of organized discussions before it begins.
Asked what they believed American Catholics most want to see in a new pope, Cardinal O'Malley stressed personal holiness and skills in communication and evangelization, while Cardinal DiNardo spoke of faithfulness and the ability to tend and unify diverse people worldwide. Cardinal George said it was the wrong question.
"I don't think any of us here is representing people as such. We represent the faith," he said.
They said it was too early to assess the long-term impact of the papal abdication.
Cardinal George, the only one of the three to have voted in the last conclave, said that age will be "a secondary factor" in the minds of the cardinals.
Cardinal George said he was trying to learn more about possible candidates by studying written material and questioning others who knew them better.
"You try to take that in the spirit of ... personal indifference, that is without trying to figure out what's best for you but rather what is best for the church," he said.
"You sort the information through and ask the Lord to help you understand ... who will be the best candidate for the church."
Discussions in pre-conclave meetings with all the other cardinals "will be the most helpful intellectual preparation," Cardinal O'Malley said. "Certainly our spiritual preparation has already begun. Our people back home and throughout the world are all praying for this event, that we will be guided to choose the best possible person to lead the church ... the one that God wants to be our holy father."
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published March 1, 2013 5:00 AM