03/19/2013 09:23 am ET

Scola's Loss Of Papacy Leaves Some Italians Grumbling

By Eric J. Lyman
Religion News Service

ROME (RNS) While the public has embraced Pope Francis, Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola's failure to garner support has caused grumblings among Italians.

A favorite heading into the conclave that elected the new pope last Wednesday (March 13), Scola's loss has sparked speculation that the papacy -- the exclusive property of Italy over a span of 456 years and 45 popes, ending with the election of John Paul II in 1978 -- may never return to the country.

As a Milan-based cardinal with a reputation as a reformer, Scola appeared to be the leading candidate going into the conclave. No figure was seen as so likely to become pope ahead of the conclave at least since another archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, was elected Pope Paul VI in 1963.

Italian newspapers reported Scola would have the support of as many as 40 or even 50 cardinals on the first ballot (a cardinal needed 77 to be selected as pope). On the eve of the conclave, betting sites had him listed as a consensus 2-to-1 pick, implying he was nearly four times more likely to be selected pope than the next highest-ranked favorite.

The world knows now that none of that mattered in the end: With their fifth vote, the 115 cardinals participating in the conclave selected Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who was hardly mentioned by expert handicappers, even though he reportedly finished second in the 2005 conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI.

"In retrospect, we can see some faults in everyone's logic," said Paolo Rodari, the Vatican correspondent for Italy's La Repubblica. "Scola was the only realistic Italian candidate, and Italy has 28 cardinal electors, more than any other country. And so people thought they'd support Scola as a bloc, and that his support would build from there."

Giacomo Galeazzi, a Vatican watcher working with the Turin newspaper La Stampa, agreed.

"Many cardinals told (Scola) they planned to vote for him, but they apparently changed their minds even before the first ballot," said Galeazzi, who after the conclave penned an article in La Stampa with the headline: "Scola betrayed by the Italians, starting from the first vote."

The expectation that the papacy was due to return to Italy after two consecutive non-Italian popes was widespread in Italy. Ahead of the conclave, Pietro Boccamazzi, 77, a retired bus driver and regular churchgoer, reflected a common view when he said: "The best thing would probably be to have an Italian pope again. No disrespect to other nations. But the church is here (in Italy) for a reason."

In St. Peter's Square on Friday, 69-year-old Rosa Maria Iozzia of Rome said that while she felt "connected" to Pope Francis, she had hoped for an Italian pope. "When I was growing up there were fewer problems (in the church) and the pope was always Italian ... (and) maybe those things are connected," she said, adding that she was "comforted" by the fact that the new pope was born to Italian immigrant parents.

Robert Mickens, the Rome correspondent for the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet, said Scola's chances to become pope were probably undone by a lack of unity among the Italian cardinals -- and Scola's own ambitions.

"Few cardinals will vote for someone who seems to be campaigning for the job," Mickens said.

According to La Stampa's Galeazzi, Scola's defeat may mean a long wait -- if it ever happens again -- before an Italian returns to the papacy.

"If it was going to happen again, I think it would have had to happen this time," he said. "The church is growing in other parts of the world and shrinking here, and over time the origins of the College of Cardinals will reflect that. With each conclave, fewer and fewer people will even remember when there was an Italian pope."

(Eric J. Lyman writes for USA Today.)