Pope without pomp
The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio surprised Vatican watchers. Why did the cardinals choose him, and what will this unshowy Argentinian do for the Catholic Church?
Man of the people: Cardinal Bergoglio drinks mate, a traditional beverage, in Buenos Aires earlier this month. Photograph: DyN/AP Photo
Warm welcome: Pope Francis waves to the crowd on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday evening. Photograph: L’Osservatore Romano/Getty
Excitement: nuns talk in St Peter’s Square after the newly elected pope appeared on the balcony of the basilica on Wednesday evening. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty
Pastoral care: Cardinal Bergoglio talks with a fellow passenger on the Buenos Aires underground in 2008. Photograph: Emiliano Lasalvia/LatinContent/Getty
It was Benedict who did it. There has never been an interregnum like the one just experienced by the Catholic Church, a period that led to the largely unexpected election, as Pope Francis, of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Benedict’s decision to retire took just about everybody by surprise, wrongfooting those, within the curia and without, who might have had other plans for the future of their institution.
That the conclave was not overshadowed by an outburst of grief like that for John Paul II, a widely admired, much-loved figure, changed the game.
Rather than experiencing the n ovendiali , or traditional nine-day period of mourning, the cardinals held a week-long state-of-the-union set of congregazioni generali , where, by all accounts, they vigorously exchanged opinions. Among the many issues discussed was one that kept recurring: the governance of the church, or the sense that things had got just a little out of control at HQ.
Cardinals such as Joao Braz de Aviz, the Brazilian prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, railed against the ills of a Roman curia, of which he is a member.
In the final congregazione , last Saturday, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was called on to answer questions about the administration of the city state’s bank, IOR. Not all of his fellow cardinals were satisfied with his answers.
One who did speak, just once and towards the end of the week, was Cardinal Bergoglio. His address was short – he did not even use up his allotted five minutes – and not so sweet. For the church, he said, thirst for power is a sin.
Many believe the momentum that saw him elected pope, after just five votes in little over 24 hours, began then. (A small number of commentators had suggested he might be a contender, given his important record in the Latin American church.)
In Rome, the majority of commentators had overlooked his candidacy for the obvious reasons that he was 76 years old and not in line with the calls for a younger, more vigorous pope, and that he seemed like yesterday’s man, given that he had been the only cardinal to seriously challenge Benedict at the conclave eight years ago.
By last weekend, however, on the eve of the conclave, those concerns seemed to have waned. Cardinal Bergoglio himself, meeting an acquaintance while out walking last Sunday afternoon, is alleged to have said: “Pray for me, for I’m not sure what my fellow cardinals have in mind for me.”
A key aspect of last week’s conclave is that a majority of cardinals, probably even including some of those in the curia, seem to have come to an anyone-but-an-Italian conclusion. For some years, senior curia and Italian church figures have made no secret of their desire to have the papacy back. As far as the Italian media were concerned, the conclave essentially featured just two candidates, one Italian and the other curia: Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, who is archbishop of São Paulo but also has seven years’ experience at the Congregation of Bishops, in Rome.
Such was the confidence of some sections of the Italian church that on Wednesday afternoon, by mistake, someone at the Italian Bishops Conference sent off a telegram of congratulations to Cardinal Scola, complimenting him on his election as pope.
Election of a foreigner
At least one senior Vatican diplomat this week drew some very negative conclusions for the Italian church from this third-in-a-row election of a foreigner. “You could say that the non-Italians were willing to elect a pope with the kind of baggage that the dirty war in Argentina brings, rather than elect someone like Scola, who is a bishop and theologian with a proven track record. What is more, Scola probably has a better record for honesty than many of his fellow Italian bishops.”