VATICAN CITY -- On the day when three different size white cassocks were unpacked and placed in the room next to the Sistine Chapel for the next pope, talk emerged Monday that a cardinal from the United States could end up wearing one of them.
It's the first time Americans have been considered serious contenders, particularly if voting for the leading candidates becomes deadlocked.
"The idea of an American pope was essentially taboo until now," said John Thavis, the longtime Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and author of "Vatican Diaries."
Officially none of the cardinals is talking, so names of U.S. contenders come from Vaticanisti, journalists who regularly cover the Vatican and lay claim to inside sources.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, of New York, a gregarious extrovert whose homilies are soul-stirring, is reportedly backed by some powerful Italians who long for a return to the style of Pope John Paul II.
Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, 68, a Capuchin who grew up in Whitehall and preaches well in five languages and cleaned up after sex abuse disasters in three dioceses, has media interest, although it's not clear if he has a voting bloc.
John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter has proposed that if the cardinals are open to an American, Pittsburgh's longtime bishop and native son, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, 72, of Washington, D.C., best fits the criteria that many have indicated they want.
In on-and-off-the-record interviews prior to the pre-conclave media blackout, various cardinals described a tangibly holy evangelist with international appeal and enough of a spine to clean up a bureaucratic nightmare in the Vatican.
According to numerous accounts, Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, of Milan; Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, of Sao Paolo, Brazil; and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, a Canadian who was most recently head of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, all have support, but nothing close to the 77 votes required for an election by two-thirds of the 115 voting cardinals.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa estimates that Cardinal Scola, an intellectual known for dialogue with Muslims, has 35 to 40 votes, primarily from Europe and some from the United States. But the Philadelphia-based Vaticanista Rocco Palmo, who is on the speed dial of some cardinals, says Italian cardinals are wary of him because of his ties to Communion and Liberation, an Italian Roman Catholic movement with political overtones. He isn't seen as particularly dynamic but is an architect of the "new evangelization" that Pope Benedict XVI sought to bring to the secularized West.
Cardinal Scherer is also said to suffer from a charisma deficit -- translations of his sermons are bland. He is, according to Italian Vaticanisti, the candidate of the old guard in the Vatican bureaucracy, where he once worked. La Stampa estimates that he has 25 votes. But backing from the old guard could alienate many cardinals who see the Vatican bureaucracy as an inept, pastorally tone-deaf source of scandal.
Cardinal Ouellet, a scripture scholar, is usually named as the third-leading contender, although La Repubblica considers the two early leaders to be Cardinal Scola and Cardinal Dolan.
What Cardinals Scola, Scherer and Ouellet lack in personal magnetism, Cardinal Dolan supplies several times over.
The Rev. James Farnan, a pastor in Beaver County, attended seminary at Rome's North American College in the 1990s, when then-Monsignor Dolan was the rector. He was such a brilliant teacher and preacher that students were eager to attend his seminars.
"They were entertaining, stuffed with content and inspiring. He would take the ethereal and make it practical, without losing its lofty nature," Father Farnan said.
When the eighth-graders from Father Farnan's school, Divine Mercy in Beaver Falls, visited St. Patrick's Cathedral on a class trip, Cardinal Dolan met them there and connected with them. "He told them that, because he was my rector, he considered them his grandkids," Father Farnan said.
But the outgoing, glad-handing qualities that make him so appealing to Americans may be off-putting to those of other cultures who consider Americans brash. And, as with Cardinal O'Malley, there are questions about whether someone who has never worked in the Vatican bureaucracy can solve entrenched problems there. Cardinal O'Malley has drawn a lot of media interest for his track record on sex abuse and the brown Franciscan habit that symbolizes love and humility throughout the Catholic world.
Mr. Allen believes that Cardinal Wuerl may be the most qualified American, with a decade of Vatican experience, a history of successfully confronting its bureaucrats and a gift for building consensus among feuding factions. But he may be more likely a kingmaker than a king in the conclave.
There may still be major resistance to an American. Not only is there a long-standing tradition against a pope from any superpower, but at least one American cardinal has noted that in nations where America is viewed as the enemy, some Catholics might be endangered for their association with an American pope.
Plenty of non-Americans are getting mentioned in what seems to be a wide-open conclave.
According to La Stampa, Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, 76, an Argentinian who takes the bus to work and is said to have finished second in the 2005 conclave, and Cardinal Louis Antonio Tagle, 55, a gifted evangelist from the Philippines, gave influential speeches in the pre-conclave meetings. Cardinal Tagle and Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 68, of Vienna were cautiously endorsed by the Survivors Network of the Those Abused by Priests for speaking boldly against abuse and its cover-up.
Cardinal Schoenborn rallied the support for his mentor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to carry the 2005 conclave. Long viewed as a conservative, the editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has recently drawn liberal interest for saying that a partnered gay man should be allowed to serve on his parish council and for denouncing the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who belittled concern over sex abuse. The question is whether Cardinal Schoenborn's perceived shift to the left will draw more votes than it alienates.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, 65, of Sri Lanka has some conservative support -- his tenure at the Vatican was marked by more-Catholic-than-the-pope stances on liturgical matters. English-speaking cardinals who are still contending with priests unhappy with Latinesque changes that the Vatican imposed on their liturgy are likely to align against a cardinal who banned communion in the hand.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published March 12, 2013 4:00 AM