ST-MATHIEU-DE-HARRICANA, Que. - Worshipers from the home parish of a Canadian papal contender offered prayers and predictions on Sunday for one of their own.
Following mass at a church in northwestern Quebec, parishioners discussed the possibility of Marc Cardinal Ouellet inheriting St. Peter's throne.
Ouellet, 68, is a popular figure in the rural community of La Motte, where he was born, raised and ordained as a priest.
Now, many here are rooting — and praying — for Ouellet, who's name has been mentioned as one of the front-runners to become the next pontiff.
"For a little village of 400 residents, it would be an honour to have a pope," said Leo Paul Larouche, who grew up with Ouellet in the village, nearly 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal.
"I think there's a good chance he'll become pope. We're following it every day."
Bookmakers and Vatican observers consider Ouellet among the top contenders to replace recently retired Pope Benedict XVI. Ouellet serves as head of the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which vets bishop nominations worldwide.
Cardinals from around the globe have travelled to Rome for meetings ahead of the election of a new pontiff. The conclave won't be set until all cardinals have arrived, meaning a definitive date may not come Monday.
Back in rural Quebec, worshipers were asked during Sunday's ceremony to pray for the cardinals who will choose the next pope.
But Father Gaston Letendre made no specific reference to Ouellet during the mass.
"Give them (the cardinals) peace and serenity, discernment and courage, to designate he that you want to govern St. Peter's boat," Letendre said as he prayed during the congregation's first mass since Benedict stepped down last week.
The ceremony, however, was not held in La Motte's St-Luc Church, where Ouellet was baptized and ordained into the priesthood in 1968. It took place about 20 kilometres north of La Motte in the neighbouring community of St-Mathieu-d'Harricana.
Due to the steep drop in attendance at weekly mass over the years, the two parishes now share their ceremonies. The location of Sunday mass alternates between the two villages from week to week.
Fewer than 20 people attended Sunday's mass, evidence of a major challenge that the next pope faces.
Fewer and fewer worshipers have sat in Quebec pews since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, a period when the church lost its once-powerful grip on education and political influence in the province.
Parishioner Raymond Desrosiers said Sunday that Ouellet could help reverse the decline in the province, and across the continent, if he succeeds Benedict.
"I believe it would relaunch the Catholic religion quite a bit in North America," said Desrosiers, admitting it would likely take several years for a Ouellet-led turnaround to take shape.
He described Ouellet as a friendly man who is very easy to talk to.
"We've been praying a lot for him to be named (pope)," said Desrosiers.
One of Ouellet's former teachers from La Motte says she's also been praying for him, like he did for her a few years ago while she battled cancer.
Jeannette Gagnon, who taught Ouellet in primary school, said she asked him to pray with her during her fight against the illness. He did and she got better.
"Even if he isn't named pope, in my heart he's been one for a long time," Gagnon said.
- with files from The Associated Press