ROME — Roman Catholic cardinals asked for prayers of support, joked with parishioners and kissed squirming babies.
On the eve of what may be the most important decision of their lives, the men who will choose the next pope made their likely last scheduled public appearances Sunday, preaching at churches across the city while attempting to dodge journalists.
Several alluded to the conclave, the private meeting in the Sistine Chapel where 115 of these most senior prelates will elect a successor to Benedict XVI. It starts Tuesday.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., asked for his parishioners' prayers and support at the end of a brief sermon at the San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains) church. To his left was a majestic 16th century marble sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo.
"That's all I can say about the conclave," Wuerl said, noting that the cardinals had voted not to give interviews until after the conclave ends.
Sunday was the fourth Sunday of Lent and so a theme of sacrifice was typical in the sermons. The gospel for the day featured the parable of the prodigal son, which Wuerl said shows a father's eternal willingness to forgive.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Italy's largest diocese, and often mentioned as a leading candidate to become pope, sounded a similar note.
In a 13-minute homily at the centuries-old Santi Apostoli basilica (the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles) near Rome's famous Trevi Fountain, he said the Catholic Church's message ought to convey the idea of God's mercy as a source of hope.
In the nearby church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer told the congregation that it was a "time of joy and hope." He preached for 20 minutes, and then delighted the packed church by blessing a couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary. Scherer also makes many short lists of possible popes.
Every cardinal, upon his elevation, is assigned his "titular church" in Rome in keeping with Catholic belief that the pope is the "bishop of Rome" and the cardinals are Rome's parish priests.
Although it is considered unlikely that an American would be selected pope, two U.S. contenders pop up regularly, and they are men of styles that could not be more different.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley may have been embarrassed Sunday when the Rev. Rocco Visca, provincial father of the Discalced Carmelites at the baroque Santa Maria della Vittoria church, talked about what a fabulous pope the bearded Boston prelate would make.
"If our prayers are heard, we hope this will be your last visit to this church as titular cardinal," Visca said, and the destination of "your first visit as pontiff."
The gregarious Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York received something of a rock-star welcome at the packed church of Nostra Signora di Guadalupe.
Accompanied by the resident choir and a group of American priests, Dolan celebrated Mass after stopping to kiss babies in the crowd. Inside the church, he won applause and laughter from parishioners by saying, in accomplished if heavily accented Italian, "This is a big crowd, let's do two collections!"