Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News
Cardinal Francis George sits during mass at San Bartolomew Church in Rome, on Sunday.
ROME — An American cardinal in Rome hinted Sunday at the difficulty of deciding who should be the next pope, saying the papal conclave was a time when “the will of God is not entirely clear.”
Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, asked for “help and prayers” as he and 114 other cardinals prepared to enter the papal conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
“I ask you for your prayer to help the Holy Spirit to be present among us to open our hearts and our minds to what is the will of God for his people throughout the world," he told reporters after saying mass at the local church assigned to him during his stay in Rome.
He added: "This is a momentous occasion, when perhaps the will of God isn't entirely clear to many of us."
Vatican observers say the choice is wider than it has been in modern memory, with no emerging consensus on who should be the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
George, 76, will enter the conclave on Tuesday afternoon along with fellow Americans including Cardinal Tim Dolan, Archbishop of New York and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston.
In a sign of the speculation that a U.S. cardinal could be the next pope, there was a huge media presence at the Santa Maria della Vittoria where O’Malley appeared to bring star power to Sunday’s mass.
Carol Grisanti / NBC News
The Bernini sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, at Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome, where Father Sean O'Malley said mass on Sunday.
“My goodness, the church hasn't been this full in a long time,” joked one priest. “Did you see that?” whispered one nun to another as O’Malley swept into the church, blessing the congregation with holy water while television crews looked on.
“Let us pray that the holy spirit will give us the guidance to choose the next pope,” he said, before expressing gratitude to the congregation and gesturing to the church’s chief attraction – a Bernini sculpture, “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” which was featured in Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons.”
But it was the media-savvy Dolan who had the best lines for reporters outside his assigned local church, Our Lady of Guadalupe in the blue-collar district of Monte Mario.
Speaking about the choice facing him and his fellow cardinals, he said: “They have a saying in Italy: ‘You can only make gnocchi with the dough you’ve got.’”
He also hinted that he hoped the new pope would be in place by March 19, which is St. Joseph’s Day.
“Wouldn’t it just be beautiful if we could have a new pope on St. Joseph’s Day?” he told reporters.
Cardinal George gave communion at the 10th century Basilica of St. Bartholomew, which has a dramatic setting on Tiber Island in the middle of the Tiber River.
Children among the congregation lined up for his blessing during the service.
“It was a very special day for the young ones,” said Francesca Scambia, 49, whose children Massimo, 13, and Tommaso, 10, were among those to be blessed as about 200 worshippers looked on.
“It is great for us to see a cardinal, particularly at this important time for the church as they prepare to enter the conclave, and it was a nice service,” she said.
George, who was born in Chicago and suffered from polio as a child, underwent bladder cancer surgery six years ago and was last year treated again after more cancerous cells were found in his kidneys.
Alastair Jamieson / NBC News
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago gives mass at the Basilica of St Bartholomew on the Tiber Island in Rome, Sunday.