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Pope Francis was high on cardinals' lists before vote

In pre-conclave meetings, he spoke quietly and convincingly about the need to reform the Catholic Church bureaucracy.

March 14, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Pope Francis, center, leaves the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome on his first day on the job.
Pope Francis, center, leaves the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome… (Ciro Fusco, European Pressphoto…)

VATICAN CITY — In private meetings before their conclave to elect a new pope, Roman Catholic cardinals took note when one of their number rose to speak — clearly, quietly and persuasively — about the need to purify the church and streamline its unwieldy bureaucracy.

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.

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