Maryanne Loughrey.

Maryanne Loughry.

The Australian nun named as a candidate to be the first woman cardinal would be willing to serve if the Pope asked her, but does not expect a call.

Sister Maryanne Loughry, assistant director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, was one of eight women listed as strong possibilities by American Jesuit priest James Keenan in a recent Facebook post that has gone viral.

Pope Francis has spoken of encouraging a deeper role in ministry for women, leading to speculation he intends to appoint one at his first consistory next February. Although women cannot be ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, it is open to the Pope to decide that cardinals need not be ordained, according to canon law.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York also fuelled interest when he said last year it was theoretically possible for the pope to appoint female cardinals. He said Pope John Paul II asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta if she wanted to be a cardinal, but she declined.

Sister Loughry is a Sisters of Mercy psychologist who specialises in the mental health effects of trauma on refugees. She spends part of the year teaching at Oxford and Boston, and returned last week from Syria, where she was working with refugees.

Taken aback to be contacted by Fairfax Media, she said: ''Oh my Lord!'' She had been aware that Father Keenan had named her, but not of the worldwide interest.

''I actually said to Father Keenan that he should meet more Australian women - there's a number who would be eminently able to do the job,'' she said.

''Women would make a fantastic contribution to decision making.''

Asked if she would accept such an appointment, she said: ''I would consider any role in which I can make a contribution to the church.'' She did not think it was a possibility - ''not in my lifetime!'' - but welcomed the ''new reality'' Pope Francis has introduced since his election in March.

She welcomed the Vatican move, reported on Monday, to seek responses from lay Catholics and parish priests about the church's teaching on families for a synod next year.

''For us who work with refugees his example has been wonderful - going to Lampedusa (the Mediterranean island where many African asylum-seekers land) and the soup kitchen for refugees in Rome.''

Cardinal is the highest rank in the church below pope. Their most important role is to elect the pope.

There has never been a woman cardinal. Stories of a 9th century Pope Joan, are just that: stories.

Also on Father Keenan's candidates list are Dublin professor Linda Hogan, who is married, and Sister Teresa Okure, a theology professor in Nigeria.

The Religion News Service said the last cardinal who was not ordained was Italian jurist Teodolfo Mertel, appointed in 1858. Pope Paul VI reportedly offered a red hat in 1968 to French philosopher Jacques Maritain, a layman. Maritain declined.