When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness,” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?

Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.

A U.S. pope has long been viewed as a highly unlikely possibility, partly due to the nation’s reputation as too informal, in contrast with the heavily ritualized, even mystical Vatican culture. An even larger obstacle, experts on Catholicism say, is the image of the United States as a global superpower reputedly under the sway of Wall Street and the CIA and morally corrupted by Hollywood.

THE TIMES ARE CHANGING

But this year, “it’s a whole new ballgame,” as O’Malley said at a news conference Thursday. The stage has been set, he and others say, by Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to eschew convention and retire.

Now, even as a U.S. pope remains a long shot, the fact that it’s such a subject of discussion points to dramatic changes both in the Catholic Church and in the perception of the United States’s place in the world.

U.S. qualities long seen as disqualifiers suddenly look like selling points to some. Brash get-it-done cowboys? Perhaps that’s what’s needed to clean up Vatican corruption. Secularism and the collapse of the traditional family? Those are very familiar topics in the United States, as is clergy sex abuse.

“The American cardinals are very much in touch with the challenges facing the church,” said Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo, who was born in India and raised in Britain and runs continuing theological education at the Pontifical North American College of Rome, where U.S. seminarians are trained. “We have a very significant number of former Catholics; we have the challenge of bringing people back to the faith; we are facing the great moral questions head-on, from gay marriage to end-of-life issues. These are economic and social issues that concern every country.”

Yet others familiar with the mind-set of cardinals say it will be hard to overcome the perception that the United States already has enough power, and that our perspective on topics such as income inequality and religious freedom is a sheltered one because for us these aren’t life-and-death matters.

“We are viewed with more suspicion than we view ourselves. And you need two-thirds of the cardinals,” said Michael Sean Winters, a fellow at Catholic University who writes on Catholicism. “We’re seen as having a certain decadence in our culture that these (U.S. Catholic) leaders have not arrested. They haven’t beaten back cultural norms that others resent spreading to their own countries.”

The buzz in Rome about a possible U.S. pope has largely focused on Dolan, a historian and Twitterati who leads the U.S. bishops, and O’Malley, a brown robe-wearing, Spanish-speaking Capuchin friar who has been sent to help straighten out several dioceses following clergy sex-abuse scandals. Dolan is 63 and O’Malley is 68.

GATHERING IN ROME

The world’s cardinals have been gathering in Rome and begin a series of meetings Monday called “congregations,” during which they will decide on a date for the conclave, or voting meeting, and become more familiar with one another. Dolan is scheduled to give daily updates on the Catholic Channel satellite radio station until the conclave starts. In all likelihood, a decision will come this month, perhaps before Palm Sunday on March 24.

Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, also mentioned prominently as a candidate for pope, is a player in running the meetings, since he’s dean of the College of Cardinals. Other contenders include cardinals Angelo Scola of Italy, Peter Turkson of Ghana, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina and Marc Ouellet of Canada.

Dolan and O’Malley differ significantly in style and personality, though eight of the 11 Americans at the conclave were made cardinals by Benedict, so they share his goal of centering Catholicism — and its parishes, schools, hospitals, and followers — firmly on orthodoxy. The others were named by Pope John Paul II, who had a similar theology but put more effort into evangelizing, particularly the young. Dolan and O’Malley both grew up under John Paul.

The fresh look at U.S. clergy comes from a church that is now truly global. Cardinals no longer hide out in Italy, but travel extensively and blog. They are more familiar with one another, and so less likely to base their vote for a new pope on geography. They are also aware, particularly with the crush of news — and scandal — that has followed the Vatican in recent weeks, that now isn’t a bad time to consider new ideas.