03/12/2013 06:04 EDT | Updated 05/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Italians seem indifferent to having Italian as pope

It's been 35 years since an Italian pope has led the Roman Catholic Church, but ask ordinary Italians, and they don't seem to have a burning desire for one of their own to become the Bishop of Rome.

“I’m indifferent about where he is from,” said Alessandro Marongiu, a parishioner at St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome and official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome.

“He should be a leader, like (Pope John Paul II, who was born Karol Jozef) Wojtyla, not like (Pope Emeritus Benedict, who was born Joseph) Ratzinger. He was a good man.”

David Baiocchi, 14, agreed. “He can be anywhere, why not? It doesn’t have to be from Rome.”

Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan is considered by some to be the top Italian contender — someone similar to Benedict but with a more popular touch.

Italian cardinals control 25 per cent of the votes, “so if they’re united behind someone, that’s significant,” said Father Thomas Reese, a Vatican commentator from Georgetown University and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.

“If the Italians are divided, like they were when the College of Cardinals turned to an obscure cardinal from Poland and elected John Paul II, then we could get someone from the outside,” Reese said. "Clearly there are divisions within the Italians — we know that from the Vatican leaks."

Many Italians are in an anti-establishment mood, and Scola may represent the Vatican’s old guard, but “the Europeans make up over half of the College of Cardinals, so the odds are in their favour.”

Still, another Vatican-watcher doesn’t believe the Italian cardinals will vote as a bloc.

Andrea Tornielli writes for, a website run by the daily Italian newspaper, La Stampa.

“They are 28 and divided. They are not thinking as a group because Italy is not a nation with a great sense of the unity [like] the United States,” he said.

Tornielli says the conclave that starts today could be the first to elect a pontiff from outside of Europe.

So if not from Italy, then where?

A number of non-European cardinals keep showing up on lists of papabili, including Canada’s Marc Ouellet, Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil and Robert Sarah of Guinea. Peter Turkson of Ghana is favored in the Italian press, which some experts say means his candidacy is over even before voting begins.

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Meanwhile, according to a recent online readers’ poll for Italy’s paper of record, Corriere della Sera, the choice for the next pope is clear: Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.

He drew 36.7 per cent of the vote, outpacing Angelo Scola of Milan with 17.9 per cent and Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines at 14.3 per cent.

“The Italian people and people around the world are asking, waiting for a Pope who could be able to speak to the world, not only to Catholics, not only to Christians, not only to believers but also unbelievers around the world, the positive message of the Gospel,” Tornielli said.

“It’s not a problem of nationality. It is not a geopolitical problem. It is a problem to elect a man who is a really a spiritual man.”

Heading into St. John Lateran basilica for mass, parishioner Erika, who didn’t want to give her last name, agreed that’s the most important thing the Catholic Church needs to do right now.

“Italian, no. American or Filipino would be best to give the message of universality. The best choice should be a pope to the world. The Italian ones are very old, too much Italian. It’s not good,” she said, adding she’s personally rooting for Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines.

Before Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, the last non-Italian was Pope Adrian VI of the Netherlands, elected in 1522.