Historic choice

Tribune News Service • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:21 PM

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio seemed to sum up the very themes and challenges the leaders were debating. He was forceful without being abrasive, one cardinal recalled Thursday.

By the time they strode solemnly into the magnificent Sistine Chapel and closed away the outside world Tuesday, many of the cardinals had significantly refined their lists of candidates. Scarcely 24 hours later, on a fifth round of voting, at least 77 of 115 prelates chose the unassuming cardinal from Buenos Aires as the 266th pontiff.

The choice was historic, making him the first pope from the Americas and the first from a continent other than Europe in more than a millennium. The choice of Bergoglio, who will reign as Pope Francis, also stunned much of the public and many veteran Vatican-watchers. Almost no one predicted that Bergoglio would be elected to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned last month.

Cardinals take an oath of secrecy that bars them from discussing in detail the proceedings that lead to the election, but on Thursday details were beginning to emerge slowly, forming an illuminating if partial picture of what happened and how.

"Most of us had two or three candidates when we entered" the chapel, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Mexico said in an interview. "We did not go in with our minds blank."

Cardinals often say it is the Holy Spirit that guides them in the conclave. But the real work, the trading of names and weighing of pros and cons, takes place in the days before. Over pasta dinners and informal chats, and especially in the congregations — the meetings where cardinals speak — they air grievances or outline plans and visions. For some, it is as close to a campaign speech as they get.

While support coalesced around Bergoglio, other candidates may have peaked or failed to gain traction because of serious criticism by numerous cardinals of the Italian-dominated Vatican bureaucracy.

The usually formidable voting muscle of the Italian bloc was weakened by the so-called Vatileaks scandal that pointed to allegations of corruption and infighting in the Curia, as the bureaucracy is known. That might have hurt the chances of the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, who had frequently been mentioned as a possible front-runner. Although some considered Scola an outsider, the controversy may have hurt all Italian candidates.

Embarrassingly for the Italian clergy, its bishops conference Wednesday night sent a quick message of congratulations to the new pope — addressing it to Scola instead of Bergoglio.

In each round of conclave balloting, votes for other candidates dropped off or shifted to Bergoglio until he received the majority needed, Sandoval said. The fact that Bergoglio came in second in the 2005 conclave that chose Benedict may have had an effect.

By the third ballot, the trend was clear, cardinals said. Bergoglio became somber. In the 2005 conclave, he had told fellow cardinals he did not want the job.

"Cardinal Bergoglio wouldn't have become pope in the fifth ballot if he had not been a really strong contender for the papacy from the beginning," Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn told reporters.

The election over, the new pope declined an elevated throne to receive the cardinals' pledges of allegiance. Then he joined them on the charter bus back to their residence rather than allowing himself to be whisked away in a limousine. Later, according to Brazilian cardinals, Pope Francis offered a champagne toast to the group at dinner and commented on their decision: "May God forgive you."

"Don't you feel the new energy in the church?" the former archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, said on his Twitter account.

Much of the criticism of Vatican management comes from cardinals who do not live in Rome but work in the far corners of the globe. There may have been a concerted push to challenge the standard modus operandi that led to the scandals that tarnished Benedict and his papacy.

Bergoglio "brings a new style to the papacy," said John Thavis, an expert on the pontificate. "Yes, the cardinals see him as a manager. But they also see a whole new attitude. They saw it in him and not in the other candidates who pretty much follow in line with the way things have been done (at the Vatican) all along."

The less formal, more down-to-earth style became apparent to the public with Francis' simple speech and silent prayer Wednesday night on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. It continued Thursday when he returned to his hotel, picked up his bags and paid the bill.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., also suggested that many of his colleagues went into the conclave with their minds all but made up. Most of the work was done in the congregations, he said.

"We were hoping to keep the focus on what is today a renewal of the emphasis on the spiritual dimension of life ... to make people realize they have a relationship with God even in this very, very material world," Wuerl told reporters. "We were looking for someone whose life says that."

Several cardinals suggested that Bergoglio, who hews to conservative church doctrine, was theologically unimpeachable while also able to reach out to the developing world, parts of which are the only regions where Catholicism is growing. Born to Italian immigrant parents and raised in Argentina, he is seen as a pastoral teacher who can inspire action without browbeating.

"He can bring unity," Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels said at a news conference. "He comes from a different continent and so he comes with positive baggage to be able to do that. He won't be a pope above the people, but with them."

Danneels, generally considered among the more progressive of the cardinals, could barely contain his delight at the election of Bergoglio. He was not known as a supporter of the hard-line Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict, and seemed to welcome what he sees as a shift. He especially praised that speech during the congregations when Bergoglio urged reform of the Curia.

Similarly, Bergoglio is believed to have won the support of many of the 11 U.S. cardinals, among them Mahony, who said he was "ecstatic" at having a Latin American pope, "a great gift."

The Belgian cleric accompanied the new pope on the St. Peter's balcony Wednesday night and asked him how he felt. He pledged his service to God, saying he accepted what God had planned for him.

"But I can imagine later he burst into tears when he realized what awaited him," Danneels said. "It is a superhuman task."

— By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times (MCT) (Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report)

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