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?


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.”

There seems little doubt but that the Vatileaks affair and all that it entailed played a crucial role in the election of Francis. Unlike eight years ago, when the local church cardinals arrived in Rome with few clear ideas or notions about the next pope, this time they all arrived in the holy city wanting to know what, in the name of the Lord, was going on in the holy see. Some of them even admitted that they had been doing Google searches on the subject.

Eight years ago, too, the curia ran just one horse, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who, as dean of the College of Cardinals, had skilfully presided over the setpiece interregnums, particularly the immensely moving funeral of John Paul II.

With a united block of Italian and curia votes behind him, and having convinced many of the local cardinals, Benedict romped home, in an election even quicker than that of Francis, in that he needed only four ballots.

This time, there was no such single curia candidate, as the curia and the Italian church were divided over Scola and Scherer. On top of that, a number of non-curia heavyweights – cardinals such as Donald Wuerl of Washington, Tim Dolan of New York, André Vingt-Trois of Paris, Christoph Schönborn of Vienna and probably many from the non-European regions – had the Vatileaks bit between the teeth.

For many of these, it seemed the curia had gone right off the rails, mainly concerned with its own interests which, in turn, were linked to powerful secular forces in Italian life. Many of these cardinals have long found it incomprehensible that the Italian church has been in bed with Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial businessman and former prime minister, for much of the past decade.

On top of that, Cardinal Scola’s links with the highly politicised and very influential Comunione e Liberazione movement confirmed their worst fears. Nor did it help Scola that the most prominent Comunione e Liberazione figure in Italian politics, the former president of Lombardy and close Berlusconi ally Roberto Formigoni, is under investigation in the wake of the collapse of his scandal-ridden regional government.

Time will tell how serious the result is for Italy and for the church, which is a huge moneyspinner for Italian tourism.

In the meantime, what does the election of Francis mean for the wider church? Are we on the edge of a bright new dawn brought about by all the “firsts” of Francis: first non-European for nearly 1,300 years; first Latin American; first Jesuit and so on?

Change of style
It is clear from his first moves that he represents a change of style. His “ buona sera ” from the loggia, his bowing of his head as he called on the faithful to pray for him and his simple recitation of the best-known Christian prayer were key indicators of this.

Within minutes of his election, he not only declined to wear the papal mantellina , or robe, but also rejected the golden crucifix offered to him by the pontifical master of ceremonies, choosing instead to hold his own iron cross. After his appearance on the loggia he declined to travel in the papal limousine, numberplate SCV1, to Stato della Città del Vaticano 1.

This is clearly a big change. One Vatican insider observed this week that the sense of Vatican ritual had grown in recent times. “You sometimes get the impression that long-abandoned vestments have been dug out of the Vatican wardrobes, and even Benedict sometimes looked as if he had tangled with a particularly heavy set of curtains on his way out of the sacristy.”

But while the Francis pontificate will represent a sea change in the north-south equilibrium and redirect the institution along the path of a church of the poor, it is unlikely to see meaningful changes on issues such as women priests, gay marriage or clerical celibacy. The record of Cardinal Bergoglio in opposing the Kirchner government in Argentina on sexual-mores issues makes that abundantly clear.

How, too, will a pope from a continent that by and large has yet to admit to a clerical sex-abuse problem handle arguably the church’s single biggest current issue?

Lest anyone need reminding, the news this week that one member of the conclave, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, was involved in a case that saw his diocese pay another $10 million (€7.7 million) in damages made the point. His archdiocese has paid out $670 million (€513,000) in the past six years.

The new pope is clearly humble and genuine, but that does not make him naive. His history suggests he will think hard about the sex-abuse issue and every other issue that crosses his table. He is, after all, the archbishop who once set up a telephone line solely for his priests to call him at any time and about any problem.

His ministry for the poor obviously owes something to his Italian roots. His parents emigrated from Piedmont in 1929. He claims they were not poor, nor ever lacked anything, but theirs was a modest family who never took summer holidays nor ever had a car.

Like a lot of men with Italian backgrounds, he is a good cook, having learned the skill from his mother, who also used to sit with him on Saturday afternoons, listening to opera on the radio. “It was just the most lovely thing,” he told the La Stampa correspondent, Andrea Tornielli.

In the days when he was a seminary director, he often used his culinary skills, cooking for the students at weekends when the cook had the day off. And when asked once whether he was a good cook, he replied, “Well, nobody has died yet from my cooking.”

In the coming months, many flattering tales about the life and times of this humble Jesuit will be told. In those same months, however, we may also hear about his alleged complicity with the Argentine military junta of the 1970s. As of now, this seems a much more serious accusation than that levelled eight years ago against Benedict about his Hitler Youth membership.

We all knew that clerical sex abuse, cleaning up the curia, relations with Islam, falling vocations in Europe and much else besides would feature prominently in the workload of the new pope. What we did not know was that, first, he will have to deal with and clarify the allegations about his relationship with the abusive regime of Jorge Rafael Videla at a time when Bergoglio was already provincial superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina.

Just look what you started, Benedict.