Before selection of Francis, Vatican-based cardinals blocked reformers' choice

  • Article by: DANIEL J. WAKIN
  • New York Times
  • March 14, 2013 - 9:29 PM

– The choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope was so surprising that 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. But 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,” Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, said at 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’ march to the papacy, to draw a rough analogy, began with the meetings of cardinals called congregations that occurred before the conclave. They function roughly like primary season in U.S. presidential elections. The cardinals all give speeches — some 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. “He always, always has a preferential option for the poor.”

At the same time, he kept a low profile ahead of the conclave. 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.

It is difficult to know whether his role in the last conclave had an effect on the thinking of his fellow 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. But Benedict’s resignation at 85, the first of a pope in 598 years, may have changed that thinking.

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