U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan evaded Roman parishioners' calls for him to succeed Benedict XVI as cardinals were to hold a final pre-conclave meeting Monday.
The 63-year-old archbishop of New York -- who with Washington, D.C., Archbishop Donald Wuerl, 72, are the two U.S. cardinals seen as strong papal candidates -- told worshipers and the rector of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monte Mario he hoped to visit the congregation again before he returned to New York.
Many parishioners had cheered, "Habemus Papam!" or "We have a pope!" after Dolan finished celebrating mass.
The Latin statement is the announcement given by the senior cardinal deacon from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on the new pope's election.
"Hopefully, I can come back on this trip, after the conclave," Dolan said, and invited the church's choir to sing for him after he returned to New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Dolan was among many of the 115 cardinal-electors who paused from their pre-conclave deliberations Sunday to visit what are called their titular churches, or parishes to which they are given ceremonial title.
The tradition is a throwback to an early-century custom when Catholic clergy of Rome elected the pope, often with worshipers' approval, the Religion News Service said.
Following the service's biblical reading about the prodigal son, Dolan said he feels like a prodigal son every time he returns to Our Lady of Guadalupe because of the warm welcome he always receives.
"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 in American-accented Italian, sparking 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," he said, prompting more applause.
Wuerl spoke briefly with reporters after mass at San Pietro in Vincoli, home of Michelangelo's statue of Moses, joking when they asked about the papal conclave.
"All we can say is that we are having it," he said, keeping the cardinals' pledge not to divulge conversations among the so-called princes of the church.
The conclave is to begin Tuesday after one more day of the pre-conclave General Congregation, a daily meeting in which the cardinals get to know each other and discuss what they believe the church needs.
The 115 cardinal electors are expected to enter the Sistine Chapel Tuesday afternoon and hold a vote that evening.
If the vote fails to elect a new pope, they will hold up to four votes day starting Wednesday until a cardinal in the conclave receives a two-thirds majority, or 77 votes.
On Sunday, Dolan thanked worshipers at the end of the mass for giving him a large woven basket filled with Italian biscuits, cookies, tuna and chickpeas.
"I saw some candies in there too," Dolan said.
He said he couldn't touch them until Easter because he had given up sweets for Lent. But RNS said he prompted laughs and applause when he added: "Maybe I'll take a little package of candies into the conclave with me. Because I hear the food there isn't so great."
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