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Boston's sandal-wearing Cardinal O'Malley getting papal buzz

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley is generating buzz in Rome as a possible contender to be the next pope, even though Vatican watchers have long said an American pontiff is a longshot.

John L. Allen, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, took note this week of the growing number of Italian newspapers and commentators who have mentioned O'Malley as a candidate or written favorably about his cleanup of the archdiocese's sex-abuse scandal.

"Right now, it's tough for an American journalist to walk into the Vatican Press Office without fielding questions from colleagues about him," Allen wrote.

O'Malley -- a distinctive figure in the monkish brown cassock of the Capuchin religious order -- isn't entertaining questions about his chances of succeeding Pope Benedict XVI when the College of Cardinals convenes.

"As the Cardinal said last week at his press conference, he has a round trip ticket to return home and will rely on the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit as the College of Cardinals enter the conclave in March," spokeswoman Kellyanne Dignan said.

O'Malley, 68, was named archbishop of Boston in 2003, after Cardinal Bernard Law stepped down amid allegations he covered up sex abuse by priests. He was elevated to cardinal three years later. 

Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston College, said that of all the American bishops who've had to deal with the abuse crisis, O'Malley "has come closest to satisfying the victims." He sold the archdiocese's palatial headquarters and used the money for victim settlements.

A low-key personality who prizes simplicity and "isn't a hardened idealogue," O'Malley would bring a starkly different style to the papacy, Groome said.

"We'd go from Prada booties to sandals and no socks," he said. "He wouldn't be a blustering public personality like John Paul. You'd have to go back to John XXIII to find someone analogous."

Groome said that when O'Malley's name surfaced he initially laughed it off but now thinks he could emerge as the next pope from a brokered conclave where the cardinals from the northern and southern hemispheres square off.

Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, attends a concistory held by Pope Benedict at Saint Peter's Basilica on November 24, 2012, in Vatican City, Vatican.Franco Origlia / Getty Images file

"There are 117 cardinals and probably 116 of them would love to be pope," he said. "The one who wouldn't is O'Malley and that could be why he gets it."

Rocco Palmo, who writes the popular Whispers in the Loggia blog, noted that O'Malley heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' high-profile pro-life committee, giving him exposure outside his Boston archdiocese.

But he said it's way too soon to say he's on a short-list.

"It's a wide open field, and anything is possible," Palmo said. "But there are 117 voting cardinals and in the next 25 days, I expect to hear every one of those cardinals' names mentioned."

O'Malley is no Vatican insider and some will question whether he has the managerial mettle to accomplish a much-needed overhaul of its sprawling bureaucracy. And there's never been a pope from the Capuchin order of friars, who are noted for their service to the poor. 

It's been conventional wisdom that American cardinals have little chance of being the pope because of a global phobia of a U.S.-dominated Vatican. Allen says that may have changed because the country's superpower status has dimmed over the decades.

"The Americans have the second-largest voting bloc -- 11 -- after the Italians," Palmo said. "It's only natural an American name is going to appear at some point."

Previously, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan was mentioned by many as America's top papal possibility. He says those predictions are off-base.

“Those are only from people smoking marijuana,” Dolan said Sunday at St. Patrick's Cathedral.