On Feb. 27, a mild, dewy morning, Alitalia Flight 681 landed at Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome after 13 hours in the air. A balding man with gray-white wisps of thin hair stepped out of coach class. He wore thick-rimmed brown glasses, black orthopedic shoes and a dark overcoat. He had a slight limp, and his back was stiff from the long flight. His belly was a bit swollen, due to many decades of cortisone treatments to help him breathe after he had lost part of a lung as a young man. No one could see the silver pectoral cross he wore under his coat, though it was the symbol of his authority.
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Back home in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a prominent figure, the highest-ranking Catholic prelate in his country and to many a beloved figure known especially for his work in the city’s teeming slums. Here he was one of 115 cardinals converging on Vatican City for important business: the election of a new leader for the Catholic Church.
Two weeks earlier, Pope Benedict XVI had suddenly announced his resignation from office, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to renounce a job traditionally held until death. In church teaching, the position had been handed down for two millennia, starting when Jesus said to St. Peter, “On this rock I will build my church.”
Cardinal Bergoglio expected his trip to be brief. He was already carrying in his black leather briefcase the airplane ticket that would return him home in time for Holy Week, the most important week of the year for a Catholic prelate. His Easter Sunday homily was already written too, and in the hands of parishioners back home.
The Argentine prelate checked into the Domus Internationalis Paulus VI hotel for priests. Named after Catholicism’s 1960s “pilgrim pope” and housed in a 17th- and 18th-century stone palazzo that once served as a Jesuit college, the Domus is a modest affair. The floors are made of marble, but the rooms are sparsely furnished. Meals are served in a cafeteria-style hall decorated with large paintings of Biblical scenes.
What drew Cardinal Bergoglio to the Domus was its location. Positioned right in the heart of Rome, near its busiest byways and cafes, the hotel is across the Tiber River and quite a distance from Vatican City. That allowed for long walks over cobblestone piazzas and bridges, past peddlers, street performers and throngs of tourists, as he commuted to the General Congregation, the secret deliberations being held inside Vatican City in the days before the conclave began on March 12. In his dark overcoat covering his pectoral cross, he blended in with the crowd. He didn’t wear his red cardinal’s hat, instead letting his wispy white hair flutter in the wind and rain.
Though the public paid little notice to Cardinal Bergoglio, his name had made the rounds among a small group of cardinals who had descended upon Rome from different parts of the globe to choose a new pope. Though he had drawn support in 2005, in 2013 he was definitely a dark-horse candidate. There were a dozen or so more high-profile cardinals regarded as papabili, or “popeables,” being touted in headlines world-wide as possible successors to Pope Benedict. These men, who included Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Angelo Scola of Milan, were accompanied by assistants and journalists. They quickly became the toast of the town, attending sumptuous private dinners with fellow cardinals and kissing babies at Mass before batteries of TV cameras. Their crimson vestments, golden pectoral crosses and sizable entourages stood out.
The Italian cardinals were chauffeured to and from the walled confines of Vatican City in jet black Mercedes marked with Holy See license plates. They were greeted as “Your Eminence” whenever they set foot inside the city’s best trattorias. The Americans tooled around Rome in white minivans and lodged at the sprawling Pontifical North American College, a seminary nestled on a hill just above the Vatican.
Inside the Synod Hall of the General Congregation, however, the cardinals blended into one red-hued assembly. Erected in the postwar era, the space is distinguished among Vatican architecture for its lack of majesty. Its uniformly beige interior is as sterile as a community college lecture hall. Eight years earlier, when they gathered in the same room after the death of John Paul II, the princes of the church had mainly looked for a candidate who could guarantee doctrinal continuity with the late Polish pope. But Pope Benedict’s resignation had opened the door to a flurry of unusually frank discussions. This time, cardinals had no pope to mourn, and they spent little time worrying about how to preserve his legacy.
Instead the deliberations swiftly turned to the biggest challenges facing the church—the rise of secular trends in Europe and the U.S., the need to address a shift in Catholicism’s demographics toward the Southern Hemisphere and the dysfunction of a Vatican bureaucracy that had become too mired in scandal to do anything about these problems.
Bergoglio: A Man for the Church
Review key events in his life and career.
Veteran cardinals who had cast ballots for Cardinal Bergoglio in 2005 saw a chance to float his candidacy again. His earliest supporters—a coalition of cardinals from Latin America, as well as Africa and Europe—viewed him as a consummate outsider. He had never worked in the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s governing body, and he was critical of Rome’s apparent disconnect with far-flung dioceses. The challenge was getting Cardinal Bergoglio the 77 votes he needed, representing two-thirds of the conclave, to become pope. He would need support from many different circles, including the so-called Ratzingerian bloc—men who were already lining up behind two candidates closely associated with the German pope emeritus.
In the years leading up to Pope Benedict’s resignation, the pontiff had positioned two princes of the church as possible successors. In June 2010, he transferred Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet from the Archdiocese of Quebec to the Vatican in order to run the Congregation for Bishops, the Curia office that vets and advises the pope on bishop appointments world-wide. The naming of bishops is among a pope’s most important administrative powers. Bishops are his bridge to the rest of the world, tending to local flocks and implementing directives from Rome. Cardinal Ouellet’s move, therefore, ensured that cardinals from every corner of the planet would be vying for his attention.
A year later, Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal Angelo Scola as archbishop of Milan. Not only was Milan among the biggest archdioceses in Catholicism, it had a centuries-old reputation as a way station to the papacy. Cardinal Scola’s predecessors in Milan ranged from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who became Paul VI in 1963, to Cardinal Giuliano Angelo Medici, who was elected as Pope Pius IV in 1559.
Both men were adherents of Pope Benedict’s school of thought. As young priests, each had worked on “Communio,” the theological journal co-founded by Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI was then known, as a reaction to the liberalizing forces unleashed by the Second Vatican Council. As alumni of “Communio,” they were seen as standing firmly in opposition to secular trends rather than trying to adapt church teaching to modern life.
Cardinals Scola and Ouellet were among the names frequently discussed over private dinners among cardinals. Such meals had become a staple for cardinals seeking an intimate setting to sound out their colleagues ahead of the conclave. All cardinals entering the General Congregation are required to swear an oath never to reveal its proceedings. Even then, cardinals did not consider the Congregation a place to let their guard down. The atmosphere inside the Synod assembly hall was fine for broad debate over the future of the church. But the forum was too formal—and porous—for the delicate matter of discussing actual candidates. When cardinals vote on a potential pope, they are backing a man they think is best-suited to serve as a spiritual pastor to 1.2 billion Catholics. But they are also picking their next boss. That is partly why cardinals vote anonymously in the Sistine Chapel, masking their handwriting and burning the ballots. Cardinals do not want to be on record voting against a future pope.
The private dinners, therefore, are regarded as the conclave within the conclave, an ostensibly casual setting that serves in fact as a high-stakes testing ground for candidacies. “Every night it’s something different,” said Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George. “So there are different conversations going on.”
At age 76, Cardinal George walks with a pronounced limp and has shed most of his hair. Yet the Chicagoan has a keen eye for the art of politics. His knowledge of Italy’s intrigue-laden political system, from the machinations of the postwar Christian Democrats to the more recent antics of Silvio Berlusconi, runs deep. Going into the 2013 conclave, Cardinal George’s second, he was widely regarded by his colleagues as one of a handful of cardinals who would play the role of kingmaker. As such, he remained tight-lipped about his dinnertime whereabouts. In the case of one meal in particular, he claimed to have no memory of the evening at all.
On March 5, after a long day of speeches at the Congregation, a group of cardinals arrived at the Pontifical North American College under the cover of night and were directed through long quiet corridors to a pair of double doors, upholstered in crimson leather. On the other side was the Red Room.
Named after a Vatican drawing room where prelates of past centuries once waited for news of whether they had been named a cardinal, the Red Room of the college offered a splendorous showcase of American Catholicism to the dinner guests. A shimmering chandelier lighted a salon trimmed with red marble pilasters and oil paintings depicting late eminences such as Richard J. Cushing of Boston and John F. O’Hara of Philadelphia—cardinals who dominated the church in post-World War II America.
Before those portraits, some of the most powerful churchmen in the English-speaking world lounged on velvet settees. They ranged from Cardinals George Pell of Sydney and Thomas Collins of Toronto to Americans such as cardinals Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Cardinal Dolan of New York, once the North American College’s rector.
American cardinals are an important group in papal elections. They run archdioceses that are among the biggest donors to the Catholic Church and to the papacy. And as a potential bloc of votes inside the conclave, the Americans are very powerful because they’re outnumbered only by cardinals from Italy, said British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who attended the dinner. Often they’re even more influential because the Italians are characteristically divided over whom to support.
Sitting down at a long banquet table, the cardinals began to discuss a half-dozen papal candidates. Saucers of soup were served. The candidacies of Cardinals Ouellet and Scola were weighed. Then someone dropped Cardinal Bergoglio’s name into the conversation. “His name began to be thrown into the ring: Maybe this is the man?” recalls Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor.
The name didn’t generate much buzz among the Americans and their guests. As the evening wore on, and glasses of red and white wine began to flow, it became clear that, this time around, the Americans were not united in their thinking about papal contenders. “I thought the American cardinals were quite divided about where to go,” said Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who didn’t enter the conclave because he is above the voting-age limit of 80 years.
Some princes of the church believed Cardinal Bergoglio, at 76, was probably too old to become pope, especially after Benedict XVI had specifically cited his age and frailty as reasons for his resignation. “We came into this whole process thinking: The next pope has to be vigorous and therefore probably younger,” said Cardinal George. “So there you have a man who isn’t young. He’s 76 years old. The question is: Does he still have vigor?”
Two days after the dinner, however, something clicked. And it happened in the span of four minutes—the length of Cardinal Bergoglio’s speech when it was his turn to address the General Congregation. On March 7, the Argentine took out a sheet of white paper bearing notes written in tiny tight script. They were bullet-pointed.
Many cardinals had focused their speeches on specific issues, whether it was strategies for evangelization or progress reports on Vatican finances. Cardinal Bergoglio, however, wanted to talk about the elephant in the room: the long-term future of the church and its recent history of failure. From its start, Pope Benedict’s papacy had been focused on reinforcing Catholicism’s identity, particularly in Europe, its historic home. Amid a collapse of the church’s influence and following in Europe, the German pontiff had called on Catholics to hunker down and cultivate a “creative minority” whose embrace of doctrine was sound enough to resist the pull of secular trends across the continent. That message, however, had been overshadowed by the explosion of sexual-abuse allegations across Europe and rampant infighting in the Vatican ranks.
The notes on Cardinal Bergoglio’s sheet were written in his native Spanish. And he could easily have delivered the remarks in Spanish—19 of the cardinals voting in the conclave came from Spanish-speaking countries and a team of Vatican translators was on hand to provide simultaneous translations in at least four other languages.
But he spoke in Italian, the language cardinals most commonly use inside Vatican City and the native tongue of Italy’s 28 voting-age cardinals, the most of any single nation. He wanted to be understood, loud and clear. The leaders of the Catholic Church, our very selves, Cardinal Bergoglio warned, had become too focused on its inner life. The church was navel-gazing. The church was too self-referential.
“When the church is self-referential,” he said, “inadvertently, she believes she has her own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness.”
Roman Catholicism, he said, needed to shift its focus outward, to the world beyond Vatican City walls, to the outside. The new pope “must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
The word he used, periferia in Italian, literally translates into “the periphery” or “the edge.” But to Italian ears, periferia is also a term loaded with heavy socioeconomic connotations. It is on the periphery of Italian cities, and most European ones, that the working-class poor live, many of them immigrants. The core mission of the church wasn’t self-examination, the cardinal said. It was getting in touch with the everyday problems of a global flock, most of whom were battling poverty and the indignities of socioeconomic injustice.
ReutersCardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne
German Cardinals Reinhard Marx of Munich and Walter Kasper, an old Vatican hand, perked up. So did Cardinals Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima and Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino of Havana, who promptly asked the pope for the notes of his address. For days they had heard speeches about “new evangelization,” a term from past popes that many cardinals used to honor their memory while disagreeing over what it meant. Suddenly, they were hearing someone speak about justice, human dignity. And it was simple, clear, refreshing.
“He speaks in a very straightforward way,” said Cardinal George. “And so perhaps—more than the content—it was simply a reminder that here is someone who has authenticity in such a way that he’s a wonderful witness to the discipleship.”
To Cardinal Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru, the address was vintage Bergoglio. For years, the Peruvian had heard his fellow Latin American cardinal deliver similar remarks. And like those earlier speeches, his message to the General Congregation walked a very fine line. Many cardinals, including Cipriani Thorne, were stern opponents of any rhetoric that appeared to invite class warfare. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had reined in liberation theology, the teachings of Latin American priests who embraced Marxism, and churchmen like Cipriani Thorne had supported the crackdown. But Cardinal Bergoglio’s message to cardinals deftly sidestepped those ideological pitfalls by grounding his message in a call to model the modern church on the humility of its origins.
“He’s not relating this to ideology, to let’s say, rich against poor,” Cardinal Cipriani Thorne said. “No, no, nothing like that. He’s saying that Jesus himself brought us to this world to be poor—to not have this excessive consumerism, this great difference between rich and poor.”
What many thought Cardinal Bergoglio was offering the church—after a decade of struggling to overcome the sexual-abuse crisis and years of internal bickering over issues like the liturgy—was a new narrative. He was telling a story of modern Catholicism that focused less on its complex inner workings and more on its outreach to those most in need.
“We’ve been arguing intra-ecclesia,” Cardinal Cipriani Thorne said. Cardinal Bergoglio’s speech was a call to stop “messing around” and “get to the point: It’s Jesus.”
By Sunday, March 10, two days before the start of the conclave, a new narrative was taking hold among the cardinals. Cardinal Bergoglio was now a contender, and even the Argentine was starting to feel the pressure of being papabile.
Late that night, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian priest, was walking along the edge of Rome’s Piazza Navona when he ran into Cardinal Bergoglio making his way back to the Domus hotel. Streetlamps illuminated the contorted stone figures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th-century Fountain of Four Rivers. The sound of trickling water accompanied the clerics.
“Pray for me,” Cardinal Bergoglio said, grasping the priest’s hands.
“Are you nervous?” Father Rosica asked.
“A little bit,” the cardinal said.