ROME — There was no mistaking the fact that a dignitary was coming to Mass in Monte Mario on Sunday.
Scores of parishioners lined the small driveway in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, holding babies and iPhones. A huge crush of reporters, photographers and videographers with boom mikes surrounded the church entrance. Neighbors and shoppers began to drift in, wondering what all the hubbub was about; at one point, children scaled a chain-link playground fence to get a better glimpse.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York always cuts a wide path — he is a big man with a big job and a big personality. But on Sunday, just two days before the College of Cardinals is to begin the conclave at which it will select a new pope, his visit to a neighborhood church in Rome had all the makings of a celebrity visit, and the archbishop of New York did not disappoint.
“Where are my St. Louis people?” he asked about Cardinals fans. “How’s your Uncle Ralph?” he said to one visitor. And to the WCBS-AM reporter he exclaimed: “Rich Lamb! You are like a Roman monument! To see Rich Lamb in Rome!”
He kissed babies, shook hands and hugged and greeted worshipers in heavily accented but ready Italian. He worked the pews like a rope line, moving so slowly through the church that he arrived at the altar several minutes after the rest of the procession.
He offered no clues about whom he would support as the next pope, how long he thought the selection process might take or how he felt about being mentioned as a possible candidate. “Boy, it’s good to see you all!” he said when asked a probing question.
He did say that he was “anxious to get started’’ and that although he thought the field of candidates was unsettled when he arrived in Rome nearly a week ago, he now felt “serenity” as well as “trust and faith.” Citing what he said was an Italian aphorism — “You can only make gnocchi with the dough you got’’ — he said, “We want to be good dough for the Holy Spirit to work through.’’
And as he has repeatedly done before, he said he thought it would be great to install a new pope on March 19, when Roman Catholics celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph.
His most explicit reference to the conclave was a joke about the meals that the cardinals will be served once they move into the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican residence where they will be housed until from the start of the conclave until a new pope is chosen. Thanking the worshipers for giving him a large woven basket filled with Italian biscuits, cookies, tuna and chickpeas, he said: “Maybe I can take a small candy bar into the conclave. I hear that the food is not good.”
The cardinal’s visit to the church was one of many made by cardinals to churches throughout Rome on Sunday as they invited Catholics to pray for the church and the election of a new pope. Most cardinals are assigned churches in Rome, which they visit periodically and assist with fund-raising. Cardinal Dolan’s is Our Lady of Guadalupe, a small and relatively modest parish church in a middle class neighborhood on a hill about 15 minutes from the center of Rome.
At the start of the Mass, the priest was unable to find a match to light candles and walked through the packed pews asking if anyone had a lighter.
But Cardinal Dolan was greeted like royalty. The “Prince of Denmark’s March” accompanied his entrance, and an artist in the parish, Italo Celli, crafted and gave the cardinal a bronze bas-relief of a mother cradling a baby.
“You are also an elector of the next Holy Father, and we are sure we are in good hands,’’ said Msgr. Franco Mammoli, the church’s pastor. “You have all the gifts needed, and the Holy Spirit to guide you.”
Cardinal Dolan, as is his wont, beamed throughout the Mass — at the worshipers as they greeted him, at the choir as he sang, at an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe when her name was mentioned, at the heavens as he prayed. In his five-minute homily, delivered in Italian, he said that Our Lady of Guadalupe was his second favorite, after St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but, in an exaggerated stage whisper, he asked the worshipers not to share that fact with New Yorkers or the news media.
Parishioners were alternately mystified by the fuss and impressed by Cardinal Dolan’s charm.
Sabrina Filippi, 55, a shopkeeper, had seen Cardinal Dolan on his previous visit, in October, and welcomed him back to the church on Sunday.
“He is just very pleasant and funny man, very easygoing, not intimidating at all, very personable,’’ she said. “I really wish he could be pope. Among the contenders, he is the closest to John Paul II; he is enthralling, a real leader. ‘’
Jean-Marie Manè, 37, from Senegal, said he, too, had been struck by the cardinal’s warmth. As he walked by, the cardinal patted Mr. Manè’s 2-year-old son and called him “my new friend from Mass.”
“He is always smiling,’’ Mr. Manè said. “When he came in October, he took a picture with my son. He was spreading the joy to be Christian all around.’’
Alessia Capodanno, a 39-year-old housewife who lives in the neighborhood and was taking her 9-year-old daughter to Mass, was impressed simply to have a high-ranking church official in the neighborhood.
“We had no idea that he was coming; it’s an honor that he is coming to see us,’’ she said. “What’s his name, by the way?”
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.