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Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges a cheering crowd of faithful and pilgrims during the Angelus prayer from the window of his apartments at the Vatican. The College of Cardinals meets next month and the man who emerges as Benedict’s replacement could be a familiar face to a La Salle pastor. The Very Rev. Antonio Dittmer remembers three instructors from seminary in Rome who are today in the running for pope. One of his ex-teachers, Cardinal Angelo Scola, is the papabile or papal frontrunner.
Young Tony Dittmer was a seminarian in Rome when he was handed his course schedule and recognized the name of a teacher: Angelo Scola, then a monsignor but already a noted church scholar. Today, the Very Rev. Antonio Dittmer is pastor of the La Salle Catholic parishes and his former teacher has been in the news of late. Cardinal Angelo Scola, now Archbishop of Milan, is the papabile, the presumptive frontrunner to replace Benedict XVI as pope next month. If that weren’t exciting enough, two more of Dittmer’s ex-teachers and mentors belong to the College of Cardinals and also are in the running for pope. There is a small but real chance that Dittmer will have personally known the next pontiff. Italian-born Scola, 71, heads Italy’s largest diocese and has long been regarded as one of the church’s top scholars. Dittmer enrolled in several of Scola’s classes and remembered a tall, physically imposing man with a formidable intellect. Once ordained, Dittmer also assisted Scola with translation work. While their personal relationship was limited to scholarship and cordial handshakes — “It’s not that I ever sat down and had some wings and beer with the guy” — Dittmer said he could envision his former teacher as pontiff. “He really loves his Catholic faith and he is always so eager to share it,” Dittmer said. “Were Cardinal Scola to be pope, one of his missions would simply be to strengthen his brothers in the faith, and to make sure all baptized Catholics would share in his joy of being a Catholic.” Dittmer enjoyed an even closer relationship with two more cardinals, either of whom would become the church’s first North American pope. The more likely candidate of the two is a Canadian, 68-year-old Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec. Ouellet was Dittmer’s thesis director and they met daily during Dittmer’s final semester in Rome. Though unlikely to today pick Dittmer out of a crowd — “I’d love to say I was the most brilliant (student), but that would be a big, fat lie,” he laughed — the cardinal might recall him if prodded. “Now, he is a saintly man,” Dittmer said, recalling the sight of Ouellet locked in deep prayer. “For him, prayer is central. For him, having Jesus Christ as your Lord means everything to him. “He would be the kind where the fame of being the pope would be difficult for him, but in some ways you kind of want that. You want someone who’s really centered on Christ.” Ouellet also is a noted whiz with languages. Ouellet’s first tongue is French and he counts English as not his second but fifth language. Dittmer recalled conversing with Ouellet and how the future cardinal switched seamlessly from Italian to Spanish to English, speaking each perfectly, Ouellet had more than a passing influence on other clerics with ties to the Illinois Valley. Newark Archbishop John Myers, an Earlville native and former bishop of Peoria Diocese, told the NewsTribune he recently became acquainted with Ouellet and the cardinal cuts a striking figure. “I have great respect for Cardinal Ouellet,” Myers said. “He was most impressive and a very good listener.” Myers emphasized that he knows only a few among the crowded field of eligible cardinals and genuinely has no idea who will emerge from the next conclave. There is a chance Myers will be on hand to see the new pope make his first appearance, however. Myers, chairman of the board for North American College, said he has a commitment in Rome after Easter, which might enable him to attend the inaugural Mass. “I may have met the man who’ll become pope,” Myers mused, “but at this point I just don’t know.” One such candidate is an American well known to both Dittmer and Myers, though both agree he’s a long shot. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, is Archbishop of New York and was Dittmer’s rector at seminary. The two correspond regularly and Dittmer counts himself among Dolan’s many admirers. “Cardinal Dolan is extremely unconventional in mannerisms,” Dittmer said. “He is a back-slapping, cigar-smoking, back-slapping guy who loves to have a good time and loves to tell jokes. I haven’t met anybody who doesn’t like him.” Dittmer acknowledged that Dolan’s personal style doesn’t altogether mesh with the “European refinement or manner” the cardinal would face if elected pope. “He would make a terrible English king, for example,” Dittmer said, “but, oh my gosh, he’s a great pastor, he’s a great bishop and he’s a great cardinal.” Myers and Dolan not only are colleagues with neighboring archdioceses but they are longtime friends who engage in good-natured ribbing. Myers said he can see the New York borough of Manhattan from his New Jersey chancery and, “I tell him I look down from my cathedral onto his.” “So we tease and joke back and forth, we talk regularly,” Myers said. “He’s a very able man, very quick on his feet and speaks well. He’s a very likable person and very patient.” Dolan and Myers happened to be lunching together the day Benedict announced his retirement — a “complete surprise,” Myers said — and while they spoke at length about the papacy, neither mentioned the possibility of Dolan becoming the next pontiff. Myers noted, however, that the electors are unlikely to pick an American to be pope. “I would say he’s a possibility, but it’s true: Since the United States is the superpower in the world, I think the cardinals would be reluctant to give the impression that the U.S. has someone running the church,” Myers said. “But the Holy Spirit works in many ways.” That means there could be a surprise in store for the church: A Hispanic or black African pope. Among the eligible cardinals are Odilo Scherer of Brazil and Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, as well as Peter Turkson of Ghana. “Is it likely someday there will be a pope from Latin America or Africa? Yes. I do think that quite likely,” Myers said. “Whether everyone is ready for that yet, I don’t know.”