The surprise election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope was the result of a determination among many cardinals to pick a candidate from outside Europe, Vatican insiders say.
The South American was an unexpected choice to the outside world, but reflected a desire among a majority of his brother cardinals that the new pope should come from the developing world, where the Catholic Church is enjoying strong growth even as it stagnates in Europe.
The former archbishop of Argentina became the first non-European pope in 1,300 years when he was elected on Wednesday by the 114 other Catholic cardinals gathered beneath Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
The last pope to come from outside Europe was Gregory III, a Syrian, who reigned in the eighth century.
Cardinal Bergoglio was especially attractive as a candidate to cardinals who wanted the new leader of the Catholic Church to come from south of the Rio Grande.
“A majority of the cardinals wanted a candidate from outside Europe. In that context, it made sense to look at Latin America, rather than Africa or Asia, because that’s where more than 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live,” says Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent for the US-based Religion News Service.
“Bergoglio was the strongest candidate. Aside from being a spiritual leader and a man of the Gospel, he has never worked in Rome, so he was not tainted by involvement with the Curia.”
A compromise candidate
The Argentine, who is also the first Jesuit pope, benefited from unexpectedly weak support for Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, who had been widely tipped as a front runner in the race for the papacy. (For more on Cardinal Scola, read about the men considered the leading contenders in the run up to the papal selection)
Scola’s chances were reportedly torpedoed by two opposing forces. Traditionalist cardinals feared that he would embark on reform of the Curia, the Church’s secretive and feud-ridden governing body, while those of a reformist bent thought that he would not go far enough because he was too much of a Vatican insider.
Among the traditionalists, his most powerful adversaries included Tarcisio Bertone, who was secretary of state under Benedict and therefore the Vatican’s de facto prime minister, and Cardinal Bertone’s immediate predecessor, Angelo Sodano.
Scola’s supporters deserted him as it became apparent that he had far less support than expected.
After just five votes, Bergoglio had the two-thirds majority required to be nominated pope.
“For the first two ballots, there were several names in the frame,” says Peter Jennings, a Catholic commentator and press secretary to the Archbishop of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who spoke to several cardinals in the wake of the conclave.
“Bergoglio began to emerge after the third vote. The cardinals wanted somebody new, somebody fresh, somebody who will preach the Gospel in a way that is really relevant, who visits the sick and looks after the poor. Bergoglio ticks all those boxes," he says.
The Argentine Jesuit was not a complete dark horse – he reportedly received a large number of votes at the last conclave, in 2005, coming second only to the German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was made Benedict XVI.
He evidently had an inkling that his chances were firming up by the middle of Wednesday, the second and final day of the conclave, because he appeared much more sombre than his normal ebullient self.
When the cardinals broke for lunch, he sat down next to Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston. "He seemed very weighed down by what was happening," O'Malley told journalists at a press conference Thursday.
Hours later, after the cardinals cast their fifth ballot, it was clear that Bergoglio had surged ahead and was cruising towards the two-thirds majority required under the Vatican constitution.
"It was very moving as the names were sounding out," said Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, at a press briefing Thursday. "Bergoglio, Bergoglio, and suddenly the magic number of 77 was reached."
The cardinals started applauding. "I don't think there was a dry eye in the house," Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told reporters.
Moments later, white smoke began billowing from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel and Bergoglio changed into his white papal vestments in the Room of the Tears, so named because of the weight of emotion that has overwhelmed newly-elected popes in the past.
An hour later he walked out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to address the world for the first time as Pope Francis.
The behind-closed-doors maneuvering between the cardinals took place not just inside the Sistine Chapel but also in talks at meal times, when they retired for lunch and dinner to the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican residence located in the shadow of St. Peter’s.
“Ever since The Last Supper, the Church decides its most important affairs at the dinner table,” said a cardinal who took place in the 2005 election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI, in an interview with La Stampa newspaper.
There are high hopes that Bergoglio could succeed in cleaning out the Curia where Benedict failed. But the cardinal himself has disputed the idea that church leadership needs reform.
In a February 2012 interview with La Stampa, reprinted this week, he said the problems in the Curia had been “exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal” by journalists.
He accused the media of “focusing on the negative rather than the positive aspects” of the Holy See’s governance.
Whether he still holds those views remains to be seen.
Already Francis’s brief papacy has been touched by controversy.
There have been accusations that, as a senior Jesuit in Argentina, he was complicit in the kidnapping and torture of two priests during the country’s “dirty war."
Critics also allege that he stayed silent during systematic human rights abuses by Argentina’s former military dictatorship.
The Vatican hit back forcefully against these charges Friday, saying the allegations were baseless and defamatory.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the accusations were being leveled as part of a “left-wing, anti-clerical” conspiracy. At a press briefing in the Vatican media center Friday he said the charges had to be “clearly and firmly denied."
And from other corners there was anger over the fact that the pope’s visit to a basilica in Rome on Thursday was attended by Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston a decade ago over allegations that he covered up sex abuse by pedophile priests.
Cardinal Law was forced to leave the US after being named in dozens of law suits that accused him of failing to protect children.
He now lives in a residence attached to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and met the new pope when Francis prayed there during an early morning visit.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a US-based group representing sex abuse victims, said the encounter between Law and the pope “rubbed salt into still festering wounds”.
”Of all the church officials to visit from the United States, we are disappointed that Pope Francis has chosen the worst of them,” said David Clohessy of SNAP in a statement.
“Tragically, it took Pope Francis only a matter of hours before he dashed the hopes of abuse survivors by visiting the most discredited US prelate, Cardinal Bernard Law," he said.
“The pontiff is an extremely smart man. He must have known the hurt that he would cause to already wounded victims and still disillusioned Catholics by this insensitive act.”