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Cardinals set for a conclave this week to elect a new leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics celebrated masses across Rome on Sunday, as parishioners picked their papal favourites.
"This Sunday is also very special to us because we are preparing for the conclave, the Catholic world is united in prayer," US cardinal Sean O'Malley, who is seen as a possible contender for the papacy, said in his homily.
"Let us pray that the Holy Spirit enable the Church to choose a new pope who will confirm us in our faith and make more visible the love of the Good Shepherd," O'Malley told parishioners in Santa Maria della Vittoria church.
O'Malley based his homily on the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, who runs away from home but is welcomed back with open arms by his father.
"People leave the Father, the Church, for many reasons -- ignorance, a poor welcome, negative experiences, scandals, spiritual mediocrity," he said, in apparent reference to a key challenge for the Church -- rising secularism.
Father Stefano Guernelli, rector of the ornate Baroque church in central Rome told O'Malley: "I hope this is the last time you come here as a cardinal and I hope that if you are elected pontiff this will be the first church that you visit."
At the nearby basilica of Santa Pudenziana, Rome's Philippine community gathered in their hundreds as they do every Sunday and sang the praises of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, seen as another "papabile", or papal candidate.
"We are all maids here," said Meliros Gangani, 53, who came to Italy 26 years ago and works as a volunteer at the church on her day off from work.
"We really hope Tagle wins. If he does we would all feel a lot more confident with our bosses. He would really help unite the community," she said.
Evelyn, who also works as a maid and came to Italy 18 years ago, said: "It would make me really happy. It would make me more proud of being Philippine."
The Church's 115 "cardinal electors" will meet for a conclave in the Sistine Chapel starting on Tuesday. The field is still seen by Vatican experts as wide open but one favourite has emerged -- Italian cardinal Angelo Scola.
The conservative theologian celebrated mass in the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles, surrounded by dozens of cameramen and photographers.
"I think he is a good man, he would be a fine leader to help strengthen the Church. I am praying for him," said 69-year-old parishioner Maria Bettini.
Salvatore Merculio, 57, a taxi driver, said: "Today is a chance to show Cardinal Scola our solidarity as he prepares for the conclave, it is a momentous event but he has the courage and grace to face it with serenity."
But hairdresser Giuseppina Fazzo, 47, was not convinced.
"I don't know whether Scola for pope is a good idea, we need a radical change in the Church and I don't know if he is the man for the job," she said.