Did the pundits get this year’s conclave spectacularly wrong?

Pope Francis greets crowd in St Peter's Square (CNS)

So, we have a Pope, the first to be called Francis. The name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was not prominent among those named as front-runners. The press service of the Italian bishops’ conference were so convinced that the Archbishop of Milan would emerge from the conclave dressed in white that they published congratulations to Angelo Scola 10 minutes after the election of the Argentinian cardinal was announced. I myself opined on The Catholic Herald website that a surprise might be forthcoming, but only if there was a long conclave. In fact, five ballots were enough to make a visibly stunned Bergoglio the successor of St Peter – only one more than was necessary to elect his predecessor, and three fewer than it took to elect John Paul II in 1978. So the pundits were wrong, myself included. Or were they?

In fact, some of the best-informed Italian journalists had noticed that his name was recurring in the talk during the final days of the build-up. Andrea Tornielli, that oracle among vaticanologists, not only mentioned him on the morning the conclave began, but later the same day brazenly offered his own version of the state of the deliberations still under way among the sequestered cardinals.
As all know, the participants in a conclave are vowed to the strictest secrecy. Nonetheless, once it is over the details usually come out in dribs and drabs until something like a clear picture can be formed. It is now known that Bergoglio was the only other serious contended to rival Ratzinger in 2005. Tornielli, however, seemed to have inside information even as the voting proceeded. Perhaps this was merely a priori calculation on the basis of information obtained beforehand, but in any case, Tornielli’s analysis proved remarkable prescient. He averred confidently that there was a deadlock in the conclave, but he mentioned Bergoglio, along with Scola and Ouellet, as one of the three front-runners.

Since the result emerged, further credible details have seemingly emerged. It seems that Bergoglio’s name was in fact in pole position from the outset, that Scola, his nearest rival, struggled to pick up more votes as the voting proceeded and the outsiders quickly fell by the wayside. Scherer, favoured by veteran curialist Sodano, never really took off as a candidate, while Ouellet fared hardly better. It quickly became a two-horse race. One by one, the rival factions among curial cardinals rallied to Bergoglio. There were those less convinced, but the one thing that united the Italians was the conviction that Scola must be stopped.

Why such hostility towards the Archbishop of Milan? Aside from the usual petty rivalries – Scola’s towering intellect and his impressive credentials as both an academic and administrator have attracted envy as well as admiration – his much publicised determination to cleanse the curia of corruption and incompetence are a source of fear in the Vatican. His past association with the vigorous lay movement Communion and Liberation, whose reputation in Italy for concentrating influence in its own hands is not unlike that of Opus Dei in Spain, also caused concern.

Those who ardently desire reform of the Curia will be alarmed at the fact that this election was hastened by the surprising convergence of the Sodano and Bertone factions, until now united only by their association with the failures of the past. It must be remembered, however, that the new Pope, who has already shown that he is not to be pushed around by officials, need not feel beholden to them in any way. He will be aware of the factors which inspired their choice, and it is obvious that he himself is neither motivated nor impressed by clerical careerism or personal ambition.

Support for Bergoglio, however, was not exclusively a product of a “stop Scola” campaign. It seems that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires had left a positive impression the last time round which the intervening eight years had not dissipated. Nor was he unacceptable to those who valued the legacy of Ratzinger. Although the votes of those hostile to the future Benedict XVI had crystallised around him in 2005, it should not be forgotten that he himself had supported Ratzinger. In fact, it is said that Bergoglio, before the conclusive vote, announced to the cardinals that he was asking his own supporters to stop voting for him, and thus made the election of the Bavarian pope inevitable.

Moreover, Ratzinger had himself spoken favourably of Bergoglio as a candidate in the years and months before the 2005 conclave. So, although the present pope and his successor are currently being presented as contrasting almost to the point of antithesis, they certainly esteem each other. In fact, it seems that in some ways, whether by accident or design, Benedict XVI actively enabled the election of his successor. Besides the timing of his election, another interesting detail bears this out. One of the new cardinals created by Benedict in the consistory of April 2012 was a certain Santos Abril y Castelló. This Spaniard, who spent many years as a papal diplomat in Latin America, is said to have used his contacts there and elsewhere in order to canvass support for Bergoglio. Apparently, it was with cardinals from the Third World that he met with decisive success.

For there is little doubt that the present Pope owes much of the credit for his election to his obvious appeal to cardinals from Third World countries. Although the Americans were apparently won over quickly to the candidate from the South of their continent, it was without question the convergence of the electors from the Global South with the curial cardinals which enabled a consensus to build around Bergoglio. His winning simplicity will have made him seem capable of promoting reconciliation among the divided Church in the developed world, while his concern with poverty and justice is what endears him to those who come from countries where simple survival is the principal concern of the vast majority.

Where I was most spectacularly wrong before the conclave was in writing that geographical considerations would play no role in the electors’ choice. It is clear that the cardinals from the Third World were united by a determination that their voice should be heard, and that the governance of the Church should no longer be defined by issues foreign to their priorities. They do, after all, represent the growing majority of Catholics. It may be that their success in staking their claim is the most lasting and decisive result of this papal election.

The coming years will shed light on the question of how far the new Pope will be able to fulfil the divergent hopes of those who propelled him into office. Future generations will measure his success with the benefit of hindsight, but the ultimate judge is the One who has made Jorge Bergoglio his Vicar on earth.