ROME - The cardinals asked for prayers of support, joked with parishioners and kissed squirming babies.
On the eve of what may be the most important decision of their lives, the men who will choose the next pope made probably their last scheduled public appearances yesterday, preaching at churches across the city while attempting to dodge journalists.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., asked for his parishioners' prayers and support at the end of a brief sermon at the San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains) church. To his left was a majestic 16th century marble sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo.
It was the fourth Sunday of Lent, so a theme of sacrifice was typical in the sermons.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Italy's largest diocese, and often mentioned as a leading candidate for pope, sounded a similar note.
In a 13-minute homily at the Santi Apostoli basilica (the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles) near the Trevi Fountain, he said the Catholic Church's message ought to convey the idea of God's mercy as a source of hope.
Afterward, Scola asked an estimated 150 worshipers to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the cardinals' choice of a pope.
In the nearby Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer preached for 20 minutes, then delighted the packed church by blessing a couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles celebrated Mass at the church assigned to him as a cardinal, a medieval jewel known as Santi Quattro Coronati, as he had on Friday.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley may have been embarrassed Sunday when the Rev. Rocco Visca, provincial father of the Discalced Carmelites at the baroque Santa Maria della Vittoria church, talked about what a fabulous pope the bearded Boston prelate would make.
"If our prayers are heard, we hope this will be your last visit to this church as titular cardinal," Visca said, and the destination of "your first visit as pontiff."
At Santa Maria della Vittoria, O'Malley said: "This Sunday is very special to us because we are preparing for the conclave. . . . The Catholic world is united in prayer and the confidence that comes with our faith. . . . Let us pray to the Holy Spirit to illumine the church to choose a new pope who will confirm us in our faith and make more visible . . . the love of the church."