It’s pouring rain. He wakes up very early, as usual. Today is March 12; it’s four o’clock in the morning and still dark outside. Kneeling with his eyes closed, concentrating, he prays silently. He asks Saint Joseph and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to enlighten him. He asks God to forgive him his sins. He asks Jesus to allow him to be his instrument.
It’s a special day. This afternoon the conclave that is to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI is to start. And he is one of the 115 electors who will be locked in the Sistine Chapel to carry out this mission.
It’s cold. From his big room in the Casa Internazionale del Clero Paolo VI, a Vatican guesthouse for priests, on Via della Scrofa, where he usually stays when he is in Rome, he can hear the rain falling on the cobblestones. The people here know him; he has been here several times during the past ten years, and they always book the same room for him, No. 203.
Although he doesn’t like coming to the Vatican—where one risks losing one’s faith with all that intrigue, pomp, and circumstance—he feels at ease in this room, with its high ceilings and period furniture and damask upholstery.
He’s an organized man, careful, methodical—he “doesn’t take a step without thinking about it first,” as the people who know him say—and the night before he had prepared a small suitcase. He won’t take much with him to the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where he is to lodge with the other cardinals for the duration of the conclave. A conclave that will not last long, he hopes. As in 2005, when he took part in the election to choose John Paul II’s successor, he is convinced that a long election, one lasting more than two days, would give the impression of a divided Church. That is why, at the 2005 conclave, when he happened to be the second most-voted-for Cardinal after Joseph Ratzinger, he took a step back, so as not to impede Ratzinger’s election. After John Paul II’s nearly 27 years as pontiff, it was not easy to replace a giant like him, charismatic until the end. The candidacy of Ratzinger, the former right-hand man of the pope, had been the easiest card to play.
That time, the conclave had been not only a new experience—the first time in Jorge Bergoglio’s life that he had entered the Sistine Chapel to elect the successor of St. Peter—but also a somewhat traumatic one. A conclave is a very secret event, but messages, emotions, and even information always leak out, and the cardinals who had taken part in the 2005 election had seen, during the first vote count, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, age sixty-eight at the time, nearly distraught as he gradually gained vote after vote. He had even surpassed Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, like hima Jesuit and very papabile, the candidate of the progressives but no longer a possibility because of illness.
Padre Jorge, as he prefers being called, finishes putting away his things in his room on Via della Scrofa. Eight years have passed since that first conclave, when, thanks be to God, “he had got off,” as he said.
Because of the rain and his suitcase, he won’t be able to walk to the Vatican, as he usually does when in Rome. It’s a walk that relaxes him; as he walks, he prays and admires the beautiful little alleys of the Eternal City, passing through Via dei Coronari with its antique shops. Further on he never fails to stop and pray to the Madonna dell’Archetto in an old passageway that leads to the Via dell’Arco dei Banchi. Here this splendid fresco of the Virgin is painted on the wall, a special image among the thousands to be found in Rome. After praying there, Padre Jorge, like any passerby (he doesn’t like showing off his scarlet cardinal’s robes, which he hides under a black coat) crosses the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge over the Tiber River and presses on toward the Vatican.
He has taken this walk many times, peaceably, alone, because, even though he has thousands of friends, he is essentially a solitary man. Every step thinking and praying, thinking and praying, something he never stops doing.
He goes down to the reception desk. There he greets the people behind the counter with a shy smile. It’s a quarter to seven in the morning. “Good luck, Your Eminence,” they wish him very courteously, escorting him to his taxi with an umbrella. “See you soon,” the Argentine Cardinal salutes them.
His room at the Casa di Santa Marta is 207. It was assigned to him by lot the day before, during the last general congregation of cardinals before the conclave. It is a small, simple room, furnished only with what is strictly necessary—a bed, a chest of drawers, a desk, a crucifix on the wall, a bathroom— the way he likes it. It’s eight o’- clock in the morning. Although strictly speaking the seclusion cum clave (with a key) has not yet begun, isolation has already started. No more phone calls, no more reading of the daily papers, no more contact with the outside world—only with the other 114 cardinals from the five continents, who have the tremendous responsibility of electing the new pope at a truly turbulent time in the history of the Catholic Church.
As laid down by ancient ritual, the cardinals move in procession from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel. With their scarlet vestments, in an atmosphere of great solemnity, they advance singing “Veni Creator Spiritus,” the hymn that invokes the help of the Holy Spirit for the crucial election. They take their places behind the long tables under the awesome images of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. And then, one by one, readinga Latin text, their right hands resting on the Gospels placed on a lectern in the middle of the chapel, they swear to maintain absolute secrecy with respect to everything regarding the election of the pope.
At 34 minutes past five, the master of pontifical liturgical ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, announces in an almost shy voice the extra omnes —“everyone out”—which decrees the departure from the Sistine Chapel of everybody who is not taking part in this most secret election. Under the frescoes the silence is interrupted by the sound of the pens now touching the elegant sheet of paper that every cardinal has in front of him. For the first time, the 115 cardinals write on their sheets of paper the name of the person they believe to be the right one to succeed Benedict XVI. They write on the line beneath the words: Eligo in Summum Pontificem (“I elect as Supreme Pontiff ”).
As the Cardinal scrutineer reads out, one by one, the written names, expectation in the Sistine Chapel is overwhelming. The acoustics are not good, but as he hears his first and last name over and over again, Jorge Mario Bergoglio—serious, his eyes attentive —begins to realize that the intuition he has never taken seriously is being fulfilled. It is true; he is in danger of being elected pope.
7:41 in the evening. From the chimney of the Sistine Chapel— fitful spurts of black smoke. None of the 115 cardinalelectors has obtained the seventyseven required votes, equal to a twothirds majority, to be elected successor to Benedict XVI and the 266th head of the Catholic Church. More than ten names came up in this scattered first round of voting. Bergoglio is second only to the Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola. Bergoglio: 25 to 30 votes. Perceived as one of the great intellectuals of the Catholic Church, Scola is the son of a socialist truck driver, a member of the Com – munion and Liberation movement (a lay Catholic movement founded by an Italian priest, don Luigi Giussani after the Second Vatican Council), and has been friends with Joseph Ratzinger since 1971, when they helped start the high-profile theological journal Communio. He was formerly the rector of the Pontifical Lateran University and in 2004 started the Oasis International Foundation, which seeks to foster understanding between Christians and Muslims. He was the patriarch of Venice for several years before Benedict XVI designated him Archbishop of Milan, the largest diocese in Europe. This was a signal, experts said, that Scola was Benedict’s chosen successor.
I interviewed Scola once, at the spectacular Patriarchal Palace in Venice, next to St. Mark’s Basilica, and he said “Anyone who has inside experience of a conclave, will realize that predictions melt into thin air when you’re actually in the room. It’s true that the pope is chosen by the Holy Spirit. I really think that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and puts human pettiness—I mean the cordate and controcordate [ factions and counterfactions]—to good use. At the end of the day, the Church’s wisdom stretches back two thousand years. So many factors have to come together for a pope to be elected that no one can appreciate them all in advance. That’s where the Holy Spirit steps in and makes the choice.”
Two other firm favorites, the Brazilian Odilo Pedro Scherer and the Canadian Marc Ouellet, also reap votes, but so does the American Cardinal Seán O’Malley. The atmosphere is tense. The cardinals acting as scrutineers are sitting at a table in front of the altar. After the vote, the first thing they do is shuffle the ballots. They go on to count them, to check if there are as many votes as cardinals present. Then the first scrutineer draws a ballot, unfolds it, looks at the name written on it, and passes it to the second scrutineer. That Cardinal verifies the name and passes it to the third, who reads it aloud so that the cardinal-electors can note down the results themselves.
When all the ballots have been counted, the scrutineers add up the votes for each candidate and make note of them on a separate piece of paper. As the last of the scrutineers reads each ballot, he makes a small hole in each by punching through the word Eligo witha needle and threads them together to keep them safe. When all the names have been read out, the two ends of the thread are tied together, and the ballots, thus joined, are placed in an empty container on one side of the table. This is followed by the third and final stage, also known as post-scrutiny, which includes recounting the votes, checking them, and burning the ballots. The scrutineers tally the votes for each candidate, and if no candidate has reached a twothirds majority, there is no new pope. After being checked, all the ballots are burned by the scrutineers. Two furnaces are used: one for the fire and the other for the chemicals that are used to color the smoke black or white, depending on the result. Some of the smoke during the 2005 conclave was a confusing grayish color, but this time they use an electronic cartridge containing five nontoxic chemicals, harmless to both Michelangelo’s frescoes and the cardinals themselves, while leaving no doubt as to the outcome.
That first count is the only one held that afternoon. Once the first vote is over, the 115 cardinals say vespers.
On Wednesday, March 13, the cardinals celebrate Mass in the Pauline Chapel. Half an hour later the second vote begins. The cardinals write the names of their chosen candidates on their ballots before getting up from their tables in the order assigned to them in the College of Cardinals. Catching one another’s eyes, ballots in hand, they make their way toward a ballot box standing opposite the altar, beneath the Last Judgment. The suspense is enormous.
After two counts, at 11:39 a.m., black smoke billows from the chimney for the second time. No one has reached the magic number of 77 votes. Bergoglio, however, has taken the lead. In both the second and third ballots of voting that morning, he has received more votes than any of the other papabili—more than fifty in the third ballot. It’s clear that Scola is no longer a likely candidate. Nor are the chances picking up for the Canadian Ouellet, the American O’Malley, or the Brazilian Scherer, whom Vatican insiders indicated was the favorite of the anti-reform block.
The fourth round of voting begins at 4:50 p.m. Bergoglio remembers a friend reminding him of John Paul II’s Universi Dominici Gregis, which addresses the vacancy of the Apostolic See and the election of a new Roman pontiff: “I also ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office.”
The first man to embrace Padre Jorge when his vote count goes over 77 is the friend sitting next to him, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who whispers Don’t forget the poor.
As required by ritual, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re asks him: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”
“I am a great sinner, but trusting in themercy and patience ofGod, with suffering, I accept,” Padre Jorge replies. “What name do you take?”
The acoustics in the Sistine Chapel are not very good. Some cardinals have not heard the name. “Did he say Francis?” others ask. The faces of many of the cardinals reveal more than many words would. No one had ever dared to pick a name like that, a name containing a firm, clear, and direct message, a plan of government even.
Although some think the name is a homage to Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary who traveled to Asia, those who really know Bergoglio—the priest who always visited Argentina’s slums, who has always been on the side of the poor, and who renounced all luxuries—realize that he is thinking of Francis of Assisi, known as Il Poverello, the poor friar who dared to criticize the luxuries of the Roman Church during the Middle Ages.
Accompanied by the master of ceremonies, Bergoglio shuts himself away in the “Room of Tears” (stanza delle lacrime), the small sacristy of the Sistine Chapel. The famous papal tailor, Gammarelli, has made three full-length habits in different sizes. Bergoglio chooses the medium one. When he emerges dressed as pope, all in white, the cardinals are once again astonished because he’s wearing his usual cross and silver ring and has turned down the gold papal pectoral cross. Nor does he put on the red mozzetta that his predecessors have used to greet the world for the first time. “No, thank you,” Bergoglio says to the assistant who is helping him dress. Nor does he let them take off his black shoes.
The first thing the new pope does is go straight to talk to a Cardinal who is in very bad health, confined to a wheelchair, and who has taken part in the conclave with some difficulty: Ivan Dias, Archbishop Emeritus of Bombay/Mumbai. The cardinals then file by, one by one, to offer Francis their obedience. When the cardinals fromVietnamand China, seventy-nine- year-old Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man and seventy-twoyear- old John Tong Hon, try to kiss his ring, he stops them, and he, Francis, kisses their hands. Tong presents him a gift: a small bronze statue of Our Lady of Sheshan, whose shrine is on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Then the cardinals sing the “Te Deum,” a hymn of thanks. Francis steps alone into the Pauline Chapel to pray.
It is 8:12 p.m. The Cardinal in charge of protocol, the Frenchman Jean-Louis Tauran, appears on the balcony. He reads a Latin phrase that will go down in history for the faithful the world over, and particularly for Argentines: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus papam: eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.
Ten minutes later, Padre Jorge, dressed in white, comes out onto the balcony. He looks astonished. “Brothers and sisters,” he says, in Italian, “buona sera. You know that the duty of the conclave was to provide Rome with a Bishop. It seems my brother cardinals went to the end of the world to fetch him! But here we are!”
He pays eloquent homage to his predecessor, and then he leads the crowd in praying the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and then he talks for a moment about how “…we set off on this journey together, a journey of brotherhood, love, and trust…” And then, before he offers his first blessing to the world as pope, he does a beautifully Bergoglio thing, a classic Padre Jorge thing, an astonishing thing, a humble thing: he bows his head and asks the crowd to pray for him.