The choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope was so surprising, the Italian bishops sent an email congratulating the wrong man. His profile was so low that he was barely mentioned by the feverish handicappers and Vaticanologists who make their living scrutinizing the Holy See. But the Argentine emerged from the conclave a swiftly anointed Pope Francis on Wednesday evening, barely 28 hours after it began.
While the workings of the conclave are secret, Francis won the papacy, according to comments from cardinals, Vatican experts and leaks to Italian newspapers, in part because the Vatican-based cardinals protective of their bureaucracy snubbed the presumptive front-runner — and favored candidate of reformers — Cardinal Angelo Scola.
That created an opening for a Latin American Jesuit whose mix of piety, humility and administrative skills won over many cardinals, including those intent on addressing the Vatican’s recent troubles with corruption and disarray in the Vatican hierarchy, or Curia. Still, it remains to be seen how, and if, Francis will fulfill those hopes.
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“By choosing Bergoglio we chose someone who was not in the Curia system, because of his mission and his ministry,” Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris, said at a news conference. “He is not part of the Italian system, but also at the same time, because of his culture and background, he was Italo-compatible. If there was a chance that someone could intervene with justice in this situation, he was the man who could do it best.”
Francis’ immediate march to the papacy began with the all-inclusive meetings of cardinals called congregations that occurred before the conclave. They function roughly like primary season in U.S. presidential elections. The cardinals give speeches, talk among themselves and size each other up.
Bergoglio “talked about the need of the church to stay focused on her mission, the spiritual mission,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said at a briefing. “He always, always has a preferential option for the poor.” That seemed to strike a chord.
At the same time, he kept a low profile ahead of the conclave, making few public appearances or statements. Giving the appearance of holding oneself out as a possible pope is one of the worst political mistakes ahead of a conclave, and Bergoglio avoided it. He may have had good reason, given his prominent place in the last conclave, in 2005.
The most authoritative accounts of that election suggest Bergoglio garnered the second most votes to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the penultimate round. Then, at lunch, he was said to have thrown his votes to Ratzinger, who was quickly elected Benedict XVI. Some accounts suggest he did not want to be pope; others, that he knew he did not have a chance of winning.
Renunciation is not unheard of. “People say, ‘Don’t consider me,’ ” said Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, and that was the case this time. “Some people were very disturbed by the idea” that they might be considered for pope, he said. He did not provide details.
It is difficult to know whether Bergoglio’s role in the last conclave had an effect on the thinking of his fellow 114 cardinals this week, 47 of whom took part in the 2005 balloting.
Bergoglio and a number of others garnered votes — handwritten with Pilot gel pens — in the first round of voting Tuesday night. Carlo Marroni, who covers the Vatican for Il Sole 24 Ore, reported that Cardinals Bergoglio, Scola and Marc Ouellet, of Canada, were the leaders.
Ignazio Ingrao, the Vatican expert for the Panorama newsweekly, said that at the beginning cardinals voted for a number of individuals as a “courtesy vote.” But, “Then they went fairly quickly to Bergoglio,” he said. Private conversations in the evening helped put the focus on him, analysts said.
In the fifth and final round of voting, the future Francis hit 77 — the required two-thirds minimum for election — before all the votes were counted. Applause broke out, several cardinals said, but the counting continued for completeness. He ended up with “more than sufficient” votes to win, the Brazilian cardinal, Geraldo Majella Agnelo, said. The final tally was kept secret.
Scola went into the conclave with a solid block of votes, including many of the Americans and Europeans, who saw in him an Italian who was at a distance from the intrigues of the Vatican. But it quickly became apparent this was not going to be enough, particularly given what news reports said was the opposition of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the powerful secretary of state under Benedict.
“The rapidity with which the choice of Bergoglio was arrived at confirms that the votes that Scola could count on immediately became insufficient,” wrote Massimo Franco, Vatican expert for the daily Corriere della Sera. The numbers also tell a tale: Latin America had 19 electors, second only to Europe’s 61, and Bergoglio may have gotten strong support from the region.
While Bertone failed to give him support, Scola certainly had his share of believers in the Italian Bishops Conference: It sent a message congratulating him for becoming pope 20 minutes after Francis was named. The conference later blamed a technical glitch.
Another source of surprise was Bergoglio’s age, 76. A number of cardinals had suggested a younger man was needed — in the early 60s range — especially after a pope resigned because of waning strength in old age.
Bergoglio’s age may have cut both ways, said Ingrao, the Vatican expert for the Panorama newsweekly. Reformers may have believed that it would motivate him to act quickly, while cardinals favoring the status quo may have hoped his papacy would be too short to effect much change.