By Mark Gilger

Local priests have some personal connections to a couple of the cardinals being considered for pope, and said they are confident whoever is chosen will prove to be a worthy leader during a challenging time in the Catholic Church.

The conclave to elect a new pontiff began today at Vatican City and is expected to conclude by the end of the week.

The Rev. Francis Karwacki, pastor of the Church of Our Lady, Mount Carmel, said selecting Cardinal Odilo Scherer, of Brazil, or Cardinal Peter Turkson, of Ghana, West Africa, as the next pope would mark a historical occasion in the church.

As for Americans, Karwacki said Cardinal Sean O'Malley, of Boston, whom he met two years ago while visiting Massachusetts, could be a strong candidate.

He said the Franciscan "is very personable and I think he would make a good pope. A couple years ago, he talked to myself and Father William Weary, who is now in Lewistown, for quite a long time and gave us his blessing," Karwacki said.

He said the conclave is always a special time for the church, but has more significance this year because of Pope Benedict XVI's historical decision last month to resign for health reasons, the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign.

"I have a sense the conclave will go rather quickly," Karwacki said. "The cardinals know more about the candidates today because of better communication methods in the world. I trust in the Lord and Holy Spirit that the best pope for our time will be chosen."

Together in seminary

The Rev. Martin Kobos, pastor of Mother Cabrini Church, Shamokin, and a Franciscan friar, predicts a new pope will be chosen by Friday.

"The Catholic Church renews itself and we will continue to move forward," he said. "We trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, God's will will be done."

Kobos has a personal connection to Turkson, who attended the Franciscan seminary with him in the mid 1970s at St. Anthony on Hudson, Rensselaer, N.Y., near Albany.

"Cardinal Turkson was ordained a year before me," the pastor said. "He was very studious, friendly and humble and fit right in with the other friars. We reconnected about four years ago when he was a cardinal and ordained one of our friars in Cromwell, Conn. I had the privilege of hosting him for the afternoon and it was great to see him again."

Kobos said selecting an American pope would be very special and historic. The priest said he would be thrilled to see O'Malley, a fellow Franciscan, become the next pontiff.

"I think our God likes surprises," Kobos said. "I'm prepared to support whoever is chosen as our new pope."

The Rev. Al Sceski, pastor of Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Elysburg and chaplain at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School, said he doesn't know any of the candidates well, but believes the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals to make a great choice. He expects a new pope to be elected by Thursday or Friday.

The Rev. Andrew Stahmer, pastor of Holy Angels, Kulpmont, added, "We put everything in the hands of the Holy Spirit. He will guide the church to choose a good shepherd for His flock."

Teachable moment

Deacon Martin McCarthy, administrator/principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School, said Monday the events going on in Vatican City provide a tremendous teaching opportunity for students.

"Our religion classes will be monitoring the proceedings via television and we will be studying the history of the papacy as we pick the 266th pope," McCarthy said.

It's a lesson taught eight years ago when Pope Benedict XVI was elected, and many years past with Pope John Paul II.

"This is living history," McCarthy said. "Through technology, we are able to witness all of these historic moments as they happen."

Local priests and religious leaders previously said they were surprised and saddened to hear of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, but praised his courage and faith in making the rare and difficult decision not to complete his papacy.

The 85-year-old pope, whose resignation took effect Feb. 28, is the first pontiff to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415 amid the "Great Western Schism," during which three men claimed to be the leader of the Catholic Church.

(Staff writer Rob Wheary contributed to this report.)