ROME -- Days away from entering the Sistine Chapel to help pick a new pope, Cardinal Roger Mahony on Friday called on Christians to embrace forgiveness and lamented the enmity and isolation that he said were at the root of such problems as gangs, hate crimes and war.
At a Mass in a medieval basilica assigned to him as cardinal, Mahony also asked for divine guidance for him and his fellow prelates as they prepared to begin the conclave that will name a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
"We pray that the Holy Spirit will be with us in this process," said Mahony, dressed in purple vestments and the distinctive red cap given to all cardinals as "princes" of the church.
His voice echoed in the beautifully frescoed Santi Quattro Coronati church, his personal parish, which he said "links Los Angeles with Rome."
Mahony, who has come under heavy criticism for his handling of sexual abuse cases back in Los Angeles, noted that the centuries-old church is traditionally held to be the repository of the remains of persecuted Christians martyred in the Colosseum, a stone’s throw away. He refrained from drawing any contemporary parallels.
In a brief homily, Mahony expounded on Jesus' dual message of loving God and loving one's neighbor as oneself.
"This is a very tough gospel for us. It’s a lot easier to love God who's in heaven than it is to love our neighbor who's standing next to us," he said.
Many of the problems facing society now stem from deep-seated, often age-old hatreds and from a feeling of alienation, Mahony said.
"Something has happened over the last many years to give us the sense of being more isolated from one another," he said, adding: "The obstacle that oftentimes traps people from moving from hatred to love is the either inability or unwillingness, primarily, to forgive one another. And that is the basis of living out our love for God and each other."
Attending the service with Mahony were the Augustinian nuns who live in the church complex. At the back of the chilly basilica hung two portraits: one of the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI, the other of Mahony, a painting given to him by an artist in Los Angeles.
Of considerably older provenance is a remarkably preserved set of 750-year-old frescoes in an adjoining building that had been covered up for centuries.
"Many of the cardinals who actually lived here over the centuries did become popes," Mahony said.
So does Mahony have a shot at the job? Gustavo Castillo, a priest from Los Angeles who is studying in Rome for a year, shook his head.
"I think that he's enjoying his retirement," said Castillo, 37, who served a parish in Azusa before coming to the Italian capital.
"It's really nice to be here, because we're kind of away from everything," Castillo said, referring to the controversies back at the Los Angeles Archdiocese. "I know these have been difficult days. ... I am hoping that things die down."