ST. LOUIS — After the initial surprise of hearing that Pope Benedict XVI would resign at the end of the month — the first pope in 600 years to do so — the eyes of many American Catholics turned to New York, and its archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Prevailing modern wisdom has been that an American — or a citizen of any superpower — could not be elected pope. Many Vatican watchers still think that's true, but others say that Dolan, a Ballwin native, may represent the first real prospect of an American pontificate.
"For the first time, an American will get taken seriously as a possibility," said John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.
While the likelihood of a Dolan papacy is regarded as remote by most observers, he has attracted attention — and public praise from Benedict himself — for his high-profile tenure in New York.
Dolan, who turned 63 last week, told the "Today" show Monday that he felt a "particular bond" with Benedict, who appointed him New York's archbishop, and elevated Dolan to cardinal nearly one year ago.
At the time, Dolan gave a speech to cardinals in Rome on the "New Evangelization," offering them a strategy to combat what he called a "towering challenge" to the church: secularization.
"Dolan took the place by storm when he went over to become a cardinal last year," Allen said.
Benedict called the speech "enthusiastic, joyful and profound."
One question that hasn't come up for six centuries is how much influence a retired pope has on the man who succeeds him. Benedict and Dolan clearly have an affinity for one another.
In a statement, Dolan said those who have met Benedict, heard him speak or read his words have "found themselves moved and changed."
Dolan told the "Today" show he'd been surprised to learn of the resignation. "I'm as startled as the rest of you and anxious to find out what's going on," said Dolan, who declined a request to speak to the Post-Dispatch. "I find myself eager for the news."
Dolan will join the rest of the world's cardinals next month at the conclave in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope.
"I've never been through this before — I'm still unpacking the red socks from a year ago when I was made a cardinal," he told the "Today" show. "I don't exactly know, except for prayer ... what else to do. I'll await instructions like everybody else."
Dolan, who was in St. Louis last month for the funeral of Stan Musial, is often referred to as "the American pope." And while he is the president of the American bishops' conference, many still think it is a near impossibility for an American to lead the global Catholic church.
"The cardinals would not want someone from the world's superpower elected pope," said the Rev. Tom Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "Many people around the world would think the election was fixed by the CIA or bought by Wall Street."
The Rev. Robert Kaslyn, dean of the School of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America, said the fixation about a pope's nationality might not be very important within the conclave itself.
"I'm not so sure whether Cardinal Dolan, as an American, would be the decision that members of the conclave have to make, as much as given the needs of the church today, who is the best candidate to fulfill the office of the Holy Father," Kaslyn said.
Allen said that while Dolan is "no one's idea of a front-runner," many in the Vatican might be looking for a media-savvy salesman for the church — something the scholarly Benedict did not focus on.
But Dolan's papal candidacy would be hurt by his lack of connections inside the Vatican. While the cardinal was rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome for six years in the late 1990s, he does not have any experience working within the Vatican.
Allen said that while Dolan would be on the "B or C list" of papal candidates, for the first time an American cardinal would definitely be "in the mix, which in itself is a new development for a conclave."
Another American cardinal with local connections is former St. Louis Archbishop Cardinal Raymond Burke. Unlike Dolan, Burke — who is head of the Vatican's version of the supreme court — is well-connected inside the Vatican and is thought to be close to Benedict.
"Burke tends to prefer a behind-the-scenes role," Allen said. "Church watchers in Rome have talked about Dolan, but there's not the same level of buzz around Burke."
Burke declined an interview request and did not issue a statement about the pope's resignation.
In a news conference at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Monsignor Michael Witt, a professor of church history, said: "No one in his right might would want to be pope, but most accept it as a burden and carry it forward."
In his statement, Dolan said Benedict's resignation "impels us to pray that the College of Cardinals under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit choose a worthy successor to meet the challenges present in today's world," he continued.
On the "Today" show, host Matt Lauer asked Dolan if he could vote for himself in the conclave.
"No," Dolan answered. "Crazy people cannot enter the conclave."