Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
ROME - If Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, has any aspirations to become the next pope he kept them hidden Sunday.
Speaking from the pulpit of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monte Mario, his titular church in Rome, Dolan - one of two American cardinals seen as a candidate to be the next pope - invited the church's choir to sing for him after he returned to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, and he hinted that if the conclave is short enough he might have time to make a return visit to the church.
"Hopefully, I can come back on this trip, after the conclave," he told Monsignor Franco Mammoli, the church's pastor. "As you know, we cardinals must remain in Rome until the new pope is installed."
Known for his charisma and gregariousness, Dolan, 63, was a big hit with the parishioners in his third visit to the church since being named cardinal 13 months ago.
"I shook his hand and be blessed me," a giddy Rosa Bugliazzini, 78, a member of the church's congregation since 1972, said before the Mass began. "I told him 'Best of luck in the conclave,' and he just smiled."
Ignazio Granella, 71, a retired sommelier who has personally met three popes, said he was able to visualize Dolan on the throne of St. Peter.
"Maybe he is what we need: someone full of life, someone who makes you smile, someone who is at once close to the Vatican and far enough away to know what must to be done to modernize," Granella said. "He really loves people. He reminds me of John Paul II, or John XXIII," referring to two of the popes Granella met, both of whom were known for their instinctive connection to the faithful.
Dolan, whom John Paul II once called the "archbishop of the capital of the world," appears to be making an impression on his fellow cardinals, as well. Last year, after delivering the keynote address to the College of Cardinals, Wilfrid Napier, the cardinal from Durban, South Africa, said, "I was very impressed by him."
More recently, influential Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who at age 82 cannot vote in the conclave set to begin Tuesday, called Dolan a "dream" candidate for the papacy.
Sandro Magister, the veteran Vatican correspondent for the Italian news magazine L'Espresso, wrote last week that Dolan could get "quite a few votes" in the first round of conclave voting, adding that a confident outsider like him might be able to break the grip of the "feudal lords of the Roman curia," the Vatican's administrative bureaucracy many see as slowing reform.
But many also see Dolan as "too American" to become pope, according to La Repubblica - he prefers beer to wine, barbecue to pasta and baseball to soccer. In contrast to the impressive language skills of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Dolan speaks only halting Italian. His grasp of Spanish is "weak," he says, he speaks no French or German, and has only a liturgical grasp of Latin, the official language of the Vatican.
At Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monte Mario, Dolan's heavily accented Italian was on display in a short but enthusiastic homily. Following the service's biblical reading about the prodigal son, Dolan referred to himself in the same way, saying he felt like a prodigal son each time he returned to Rome. He thanked the congregation for their warm welcome, and said he felt connected to them.
"Don't let the word get out, but aside from St. Patrick's in New York, this is my favorite church in the world," he said, sparking an immediate applause from the standing-room-only congregation.
"What I like about being here is that I do not stand before you as a bishop or as a cardinal, but as a priest sustained by your prayers," he said. "I will take your prayers with me into the conclave," prompting more applause.
Compared to most other titular churches in Rome, Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monte Mario is modern - it was consecrated as a parish only in 1936 - and Dolan is only the church's fourth titular cardinal. But the mostly elderly congregation that can remember all four seem to have taken to him, expressing pride in "their" cardinal. As Dolan walked out after Mass, stopping along the way to hug parishioners and kiss infants, the crowd waiting to touch him was five deep. Many of those gathered to see him off had tears in their eyes.
"It's obvious that he is a good man, a holy man, a spiritual man," said Flavia Nicastro, 20, a student who came to Mass with her grandparents. Asked if she would like to see Dolan become pope, she immediately said she would, then, after a pause, added, "It could take a while to get used to that accent of his, though."