MENLO PARK -- Cardinal William J. Levada said Monday he hadn't checked the current Las Vegas odds to find out the betting favorites to become the next pope. But he would be pleased to see the first-ever American elected.
"As long as it's not me," Levada quickly added with a smile.
Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco, made it clear as he leaves for the Vatican on Tuesday to attend the Papal Conclave to help select the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, he is not interested in being the next pontiff.
He also said it's unlikely that any American will replace Benedict, who stunned the world's 1.2 billion Catholics with a surprise resignation that takes effect Thursday.
"It would be an additional complexity for an American pope because the perception would be that his actions would be dictated by American governmental policy," said Levada, 76, who rose to the highest Vatican position ever held by a U.S. citizen. "That would be a problem for the church that it doesn't need."
As he heads to his first conclave, Levada said he feels a heavy responsibility at being a cardinal-elector who will assist in charting the future of Catholicism. The search for a new pope comes at a time when there is growing divide between traditionalists and progressives who would like to see the church take a more liberal stance on social issues such as gay marriage, contraception, the role of women and priest celibacy.
"It's pretty exciting, and it's a big challenge," Levada said. "I'm just hoping that collectively we make the right choice. The office is a complex one."
Garbed in a cassock and wearing a large silver crucifix, Levada spoke to reporters in the ornate chapel on the grounds of St. Patrick's Seminary & University. He has lived on the Menlo Park campus since retiring last summer as the Vatican's head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the guardian of church doctrine.
When he was named to that post in 2005, Levada replaced his decades-long mentor, Joseph Ratzinger -- who had just been elected the new pope. But Levada was no less shocked than the rest of the globe's Catholics when Benedict announced he would be the first pope to abdicate in six centuries because he no longer has the physical or mental strength for the job.
The Rev. James McKearney said he's not surprised Levada expressed no interest in ascending to the church's highest office.
"A pope today has to be so much more energetic, and he has to be a jack of all trades," said McKearney, St. Patrick's president/rector. "He has to be good with the old, the young, the media. He has to be tweeting now and good with his iPad. He has to be totally plugged in and serve as a pastor for the entire church. I'm sure that's why every cardinal is probably saying right now, 'Not me.'"
Benedict changed the rules of the conclave Monday, removing the normal 15-day waiting period after the end of a pope's reign. The hope is to elect a new pontiff before the start of the Holy Week, which begins on March 24.
There are 117 cardinals -- including 11 Americans -- under the age of 80 who are eligible to vote. But an Indonesian cardinal has indicated he won't travel to Rome for health reasons, and Monday the highest-ranking Catholic in Britain, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, announced he would not take part due to allegations of improper contact with priests three decades ago.
There also continues to be a grass-roots effort to persuade retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney not to participate because of his role in protecting sexually abusive priests. That campaign is an example of how the selection of a new pope is considered a crossroads moment by many American Catholics, who have seen the church struggle to deal with abuse scandals as well as flagging membership.
"There are some victims groups where enough is never enough," Levada said when asked about Mahoney. "We have to do our jobs as best we can as we see it. He has been the first one to say that he apologizes for errors in judgment that he made. So I believe he should be at the conclave."
The cardinals will be sealed inside the Vatican and allowed no contact with the outside world. They won't emerge until a new pontiff is selected by a two-thirds vote. A white puff of smoke from the Sistine Chapel's chimney will signal that a successor has been chosen.
On Monday, Levada spoke in generalities about qualities he will be looking for in the next pope: leadership, the ability to speak multiple languages and a greater familiarity with Africa and Latin America. Once the Cardinals convene, he expects they will spend much of their time conferring in small groups.
"That's how you find consensus," Levada said. "I'm sure things will coalesce around certain names. I just don't know if they'll be the ones that you're seeing in Las Vegas."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.
Hometown: Long Beach
Currently resides: St. Patrick's Seminary & University, Menlo Park
Position: One of 11 American cardinal-electors who will participate in Papal Conclave to choose the next pope.
Education: Doctorate in sacred theology at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Career highlights: Ordained at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (1961). Archbishop of Portland (1986-1995), Archbishop of San Francisco (1995-2005), Vatican's head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (2005-2012).
Levada on the church's growth, particularly in places like Latin America and Africa: "You've seen a globalization. I'm even an example of it coming from the United States because 50 or 60 years ago, there were almost no non-Italians in the hierarchy of the church. That has changed."