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.”
The third factor, he said, was “the fact that he has a heart for the poor.”
It is difficult to know whether his 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.
An unwritten rule holds that a second-place finisher should not be chosen pope because it could be seen as a slight to the previous pope. However, Benedict’s resignation at 85, the first of a pope in 598 years, may have changed that thinking.
Bergoglio apparently went through the first round of voting, which took place on Tuesday evening, into the conclave as a leading vote-getter, but a number of other eminences garnered some votes, which were handwritten on Latin ballots with Pilot gel pens.
Carlo Marroni, who covers the Vatican for Il Solo 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.”
However, “then they went fairly quickly to Bergoglio,” he said.
Private conversations in the evening helped put the focus on him, analysts said.
In the 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 nevertheless at a distance from the intrigues of the Vatican.
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, the 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 out a message congratulating him for becoming pope 20 minutes after Francis was named. The conference later blamed a technical glitch.
“The Argentine archbishop was elected after the third balloting when Angelo Scola had sent his votes toward him,” Paolo Rodari, La Repubblica’s Vaticanista, wrote.
Another source of surprise was Bergoglio’s age, 76. A number of cardinals had suggested that 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, Ingrao said.
Reformers may have believed 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.
“So there were thoughts about looking to someone much younger,” said Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, archbishop of Bordeaux.
“But there were two reasons” to choose Bergoglio, he said. “First it was his personality that was the determiner. The other thing was that we remembered that we had popes like John XXIII, who was old, but he was decisive for the evolution of the church. So the question of age wasn’t such a big factor.”
The first public view of Francis was on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica, where he asked the crowd in the piazza for their blessing and then wished them a good rest, earning praise from many Catholics for his humble bearing and choice to name himself after the beloved St Francis of Assisi.
On Thursday, his first full day as pope, he prayed at the Saint Mary Major Basilica and passed by the clergy residence — where he stayed before the conclave — to pick up his luggage and pay the bill.
“I think this is the style of our new pope,” Ricard said.