Could Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley be the next pope?

sean o'malley cardinal boston
Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki/METRO

Yes, technically the next pope could be right here in Boston.

But religion and history experts said there is little to no chance that Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Archdiocese of Boston, will be the next living head of the Catholic Church.

Speculation about who would be the next pope began Monday when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation and stunned Catholics across the world.

“All of the American cardinals have wonderful qualities, but there’s no chance. I can’t see an American being elected pope,” said Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

Both Schmalz and James O’Toole, a professor of history at Boston College, said part of the reason why O’Malley, or any American cardinal would not be picked, is due to America’s status as a “superpower” in the world.

“The fear would be that for the church in other parts of the world it would be too much concentration of authority in one place, so I think that would stand in the way,” said O’Toole.

Pope Benedict’s resignation is something that hasn’t happened for nearly six centuries. The 85-year-old cited his age and health as factors for his stepping down.

O’Malley has been appointed to many posts where healing is needed after a crisis including Boston where in 2003 he came to succeed Cardinal Bernard Law. Law was highly criticized for his handling of the priest abuse crisis in Boston.

In 2010, O’Malley was picked by Pope Benedict to lead a review of the handling of child sex abuse cases by the Archdiocese of Dublin in Ireland.

Despite his status among the religion’s leaders, his notoriety outside the U.S. will still not help his chances, O’Toole said.

Another hindrance to O’Malley being picked as pope is his background. He is a Franciscan. While history has seen a Franciscan selected as pope, it is very rare, O’Toole said.

“It’s more likely to be someone who was once a priest in ordinary parish,” he said.

The conclave of cardinals that is expected to begin selecting a new pope in March will be O’Malley’s first. He, and the other American cardinals, will have a strong voice in selecting the next pope, Schmalz said.

“Cardinal O’Malley does have the position to shape how the next pope will be selected and what issues will be identified as most important,” he said.

Eleven cardinals in the U.S. are eligible to vote for the next pope. There are 19 U.S. cardinals, but eight are too old to vote, according to Catholic law.

O’Malley, in a statement released Monday, offered no hint about how he would vote or his own eligibility.

“At this time it is appropriate for the Church and all people of good faith to reflect on Pope Benedict’s legacy and achievements,” he said in a statement. “During the coming weeks we will continue to pray for Pope Benedict XVI and will call upon the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit as the Church moves forward to choose the next successor to Saint Peter.”

O’Malley planned to hold a news conference on the issue Tuesday.

Follow Michael Naughton on Twitter @metrobosmike.


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