The choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope was so surprising, the Italian bishops sent out an e-mail 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.
However, 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, Bergoglio 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 a favored candidate of reformers, Cardinal Angelo Scola.
That created an opening for a Latin-American Jesuit whose attractive 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.
“By choosing Bergoglio we chose someone who was not in the curia system, because of his mission and his ministry,” said Cardinal Andre’ Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, in 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, to draw a rough analogy, began with the all-inclusive meetings of cardinals called congregations that occurred before the conclave. They function roughly like primary season in US presidential elections. The cardinals all give speeches — about 150 this time — talk among themselves and size one another 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, said in a briefing for a few reporters. “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 he 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, in an interview, and that was the case this time as well. “Some people were very disturbed by the idea” that they might be considered for pope, he said.
“He’s someone who was looked at who could do the office, particularly in light of the challenges that we now face,” he added. “First thing is: ‘Is he a man of the faith who connects us to Christ?’ Next: ‘Can he govern?’ The church needs a revision to the way things work in the curia. That impacts our own diocesan curias.”