DeBernardo said that the past two popes have been negative toward gay Catholics and hopes that the next one will at least change the tone and begin a reconciliation.

"I'm hoping for a pope who is a pastor. We've had a pope who was a philosopher, and one who is a theologian," DeBernardo said of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, respectively. "The church needs one who is a pastor and who is a reconciler. We've seen too many people who have become alienated by the harshness of the rhetoric."

DeBernardo said simply changing the tone from the top can go a long way toward healing the divisions in the church, making the conclave's work exceedingly important.

"The church is in such a more fragile situation than the last time there was a papal vacancy," he said. "The last time, we were coming off the long and triumphalist papacy of John Paul. It was a very confident church then.

"Then we had eight years of Benedict XVI, and we've seen an erosion in the confidence of the church's authority," DeBernardo said. "There seems to be more at stake than the last time."

Vatican watchers say another difference this time around is the lack of a front-runner, as in 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger clearly had the inside track and, indeed, was elected.

Having a more crowded field of "papabiles," or potential popes, has only served to increase the amount of speculative chatter as the conclave proceeds, said Swetland, of Mount St. Mary's.

The campus was also consumed with its men's basketball team's game Tuesday night, which could have sent the Mountaineers to the NCAA tournament. LIU-Brooklyn, the university's opponent, ultimately won the Northeast Conference championship, 91-70.

The conclave, Swetland said, "adds to the March Madness."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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