Exclusive: Inside the election of Pope Francis
The following excerpts are drawn from The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Account of the Conclave That Changed History (Orbis Books, 2019), by Gerard O’Connell, America’s Vatican correspondent. We join O’Connell’s tale on March 13, after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 28, 2013, and the calling of a conclave to elect his successor. Those 115 cardinals eligible to vote in a papal conclave have gathered in Rome and have been sequestered under heavy security in the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican, where they will conduct secret votes at regular intervals until a new pope is elected with two thirds of the votes.
What took place next inside the Sistine Chapel was hidden from the outside world. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re first explained the voting process and then asked the cardinals if they were ready to vote. They were! Everyone was anxious to do so, as this would reveal where the Holy Spirit was leading them. The first phase of the process began with the distribution of ballot sheets to the electors. Before the voting started, and in accordance with the apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis,” the most junior cardinal elector then extracted at random the names of three “scrutineers,” three “infirmarii” and three “revisers” to supervise the first voting session.
The second phase was the secret ballot. Each cardinal had before him a ballot form, rectangular in shape, on which were printed in Latin the words “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” (“I elect as Supreme Pontiff”), and underneath there was a space for the name of the person to whom he wished to give his vote. The electors were expected to write in such a way that they could not be easily recognized by their handwriting. Once the cardinal completed his ballot form, he had to fold it lengthwise, so that the name of the person he voted for could not be seen.
Once all the electors had written the name of their chosen candidate and folded the ballot sheets, then each cardinal took his ballot sheet between the thumb and index finger and, holding the ballot aloft so that it could be seen, carried it to the altar at which the scrutineers stood and where there was an urn, made of silver and gilded bronze by the Italian sculptor Cecco Bonanotte, with an image of the Good Shepherd on it. The urn was covered by a similarly gilded plate to receive the ballot sheets.
On arrival at the altar, the cardinal elector stood under the awesome painting of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and pronounced the following oath in a clear and audible voice: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who, before God, I think should be elected.” He then placed his ballot sheet on the plate and tilted the plate in such a way that the sheet fell into the urn. Finally, he bowed in reverence to the cross and returned to his seat, and the next elector then walked to the altar.
The conclave organizers took high-security measures to prevent the possibility of transmission by smartphone from inside and electronic interception by outside agencies or individuals.
After all 115 electors had cast their votes, the three scrutineers came forward to count them. It was a moment of high tension. Everybody watched the ritual with rapt attention. The first scrutineer shook up the ballot sheets in the urn, which was first used at the last conclave, to mix them. Then another scrutineer began to count them, taking each ballot form separately from the first urn and transferring it to a second urn, exactly like the first, that was empty. The constitution decrees that if that the number of ballot sheets cast does not correspond exactly to the number of electors present then that round of balloting is declared null and void.
When the number of ballot sheets corresponds exactly to the number of electors, the process continues with the opening of the ballots. The three scrutineers sit at the table in front of the altar. The first opens the ballot sheet, reads the name silently, and passes it to the second scrutineer. The second does likewise, and then passes it to the third, who reads the name written on the sheet and then, in a loud voice, announces it to the whole assembly and next records it on a paper prepared for this purpose.
The windows of the Sistine Chapel had been blacked out. But that was considered totally inadequate given the advanced state of modern communications technology and the risk of electronic interception so, as in 2005, the conclave organizers took high-security measures to prevent the possibility of transmission by smartphone from inside and electronic interception by outside agencies or individuals. They installed state-of-the-art jamming systems, including a Faraday cage. The floor of the chapel had been raised about one meter and covered with wooden boards for installation of the system.
This time, however, the organizers went even further than at the last conclave to prevent the possibility of interception; they took the extraordinary decision not to use the sound-amplification system inside the Sistine Chapel. The reason for this, it seems, goes back to the 2005 conclave, when the Swiss Guard standing on duty outside the doors of the chapel could sometimes hear what was being said inside, especially when the vote counts were announced over the P.A. system.
Consequently, before the first vote, Cardinal Re asked Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, the 79-year-old emeritus archbishop of Guadalajara, who was known to have a powerful voice, to stand in the middle of the chapel and proclaim in a loud voice the names read out by the third scrutineer.
As the third scrutineer read out a name on a ballot sheet, Cardinal Sandoval repeated it so that all could hear. There was an air of high suspense inside the Sistine Chapel as the results were being announced. For the first time the electors were revealing their choices; they were putting their cards on the table.
After reading out the name on each individual ballot, the third scrutineer pierced the sheet through the word “Eligo” with a needle and thread; this was done to combine and preserve the ballots. When the names on all the ballots had been read out, a knot was fastened at each end of the thread and the joined ballots were set aside.
This was followed by the third and last phase of the voting process, which began with adding up the votes each individual had received. The results held several big surprises.
Before the conclave, several cardinals had predicted that there would be a wide spread on the first ballot, but few had imagined how wide: 23 prelates received at least one vote.
Before the conclave, several cardinals had predicted that there would be a wide spread on the first ballot, but few had imagined how wide: 23 prelates received at least one vote on the first ballot; this meant that one out of every five cardinals present got at least one vote, with four cardinals getting 10 or more votes. The top five vote-getters in the first round were as follows:
Angelo Scola came first with 30 votes, but he did not receive as many votes as had been predicted by some cardinals and the Italian media.
The big surprise was Jorge Bergoglio, who came in at second place, close behind Scola, with 26 votes. His total, in fact, would have been 27 if an elector had not misspelled his name, writing “Broglio” instead of Bergoglio on the ballot sheet. It was a most promising start for the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Marc Ouellet scored well, too, better than expected, and arrived in third place, having obtained 22 votes. He seemed a strong candidate.
Seán O’Malley was a surprise also; with 10 votes, he became the first American in history to score so highly in any papal election.
On the other hand, Odilo Pedro Scherer, the much-touted Brazilian, had a surprisingly low score; he got a mere four votes.
Besides these front-runners, five cardinals received two votes each in that first ballot: Christoph Schönborn, Peter Turkson, George Pell, Laurent Monswengo Pasinya and Timothy Dolan.
Another 13 cardinals got one vote each: Audrys Backis, Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, Ennio Antonelli, Carlo Caffarra, André Vingt-Trois, Gracias, Thomas Collins, Luis Antonio Tagle, Leonardo Sandri, Robert Sarah, Mauro Piacenza, Gianfranco Ravasi and “Broglio” (which seemed an obvious misspelling of Bergoglio).
The voting process ended with the burning of the ballots. After a final check of the report sheets on which the scrutineers had recorded the votes, the ballot sheets and the reports were taken to one of the two specially installed stoves at the back left-hand side of the Sistine Chapel as one faces the altar.
The two stoves join together in one flue that is connected to the chimney erected outside the chapel, a chimney that was now the center of attention for the world’s media. The origin of the stove goes back to the 18th century, when the master of ceremonies came up with the brilliant idea of communicating to the world whether or not a new pope has been elected by discharging white or black smoke from the chapel chimney as the ballot sheets and records are burned.
Following the norms for the election process, the ballots from the first vote at this conclave were burned in the older stove, which has been used at every conclave since 1939. This was done by one of the scrutineers, with the assistance of the secretary of the conclave, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, who had been re-admitted after the votes had been counted. As they began the burning, they activated an electronic smoke-producing device in the newer stove, first used at the 2005 conclave, which contained a cartridge containing five types of chemical mixtures that can produce black or white smoke as required. As per the rulebook, the burning and smoke-signal operation had to be completed before the cardinals left the Sistine Chapel.
The ballot sheets were burned, the electronic smoke producing device was activated, and at 7:41 p.m. (Rome time), black smoke streamed forth from the slender rust-colored chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
Given that no candidate had gained the two-thirds majority on the first vote, the ballot sheets were burned, the electronic smoke producing device was activated, and at 7:41 p.m. (Rome time), black smoke streamed forth from the slender rust-colored chimney of the Sistine Chapel, announcing to the world that no pope had been elected.
The sight of the black smoke provoked an audible Nooooo from the thousands of faithful and tourists huddled in the cold under multi-colored umbrellas in St. Peter’s Square and wearing raincoats, plastic ponchos or other waterproof gear to protect themselves from the incessant rain. They stood there, constantly shifting their gaze from the small chimney to the maxi-screens in St. Peter’s Square, lit by a spotlight that showed the live scene as television units and radio networks from many countries that were located outside the square broke the news to a global audience….
To an outsider, that scattered first vote might have given the impression of great uncertainty, but the electors saw it in a very different light. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, for example, told me he read it this way: “The Holy Spirit was indicating already, the Holy Spirit was leading us in a particular direction. God was there right through.” Several other cardinals told me they had interpreted the first vote in a way that was similar to that of Gracias.
The vote revealed several things. It showed that Scola was the only strong European candidate in line to succeed Benedict, and while this pastor and eminent theologian had support, it was at the lower end of what had been expected on the eve of the conclave, when cardinals and much of the Italian press had anticipated that he would be out in front with around 40 votes. Naturally, this came as a disappointment to his supporters.
More important, the vote confirmed what many already knew or suspected: the 28 Italian electors were deeply divided about Scola. Indeed, as the history of the last two conclaves (October 1978 and April 2005) showed, when the Italians are divided, an Italian will not be elected. Was history about to repeat itself? That first ballot seemed to indicate to many electors that the next pope would not be European; he would come from the Americas. It also left little doubt that Scherer was out of the race; he was seen as the candidate of the status quo in a conclave that was looking for radical change. Apart from Scola, the result left three other candidates standing: Bergoglio, Ouellet and O’Malley, in that order.
As the history of the last two conclaves showed, when the Italians are divided, an Italian will not be elected. Was history about to repeat itself?
The archbishop of Boston had much in his favor: He is a pastor, well liked, with a simple lifestyle; he speaks Spanish fluently and has a sterling track record on handling cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Nevertheless, while before the conclave many cardinals affirmed publicly that nationality was not an issue, the truth was few wanted a pope from the world’s main superpower. To elect an American, even if he happened to be a Franciscan friar, would not have gone down well in the Southern Hemisphere or in the churches of the developing world. O’Malley, a friend and admirer of Bergoglio, shared that view.
Cardinal Ouellet had scored much better than expected in the first vote, and he was in a strong position. As the cardinals discussed his candidacy in small groups and one-to-one conversations that Tuesday night, March 12, they recognized several positive factors in favor of this polyglot Canadian. He had pastoral experience as a priest in Colombia and as archbishop in Quebec. Important, too, was the fact that he knew the Vatican from the inside, having worked first in the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and since 2010 in the powerful Congregation for Bishops. Notwithstanding this very positive side, several cardinals said they found him “uninspiring” and “ordinary” and felt that his track record in the Roman Curia gave rise to serious questions about his ability to govern under pressure. These questions, now transformed into serious reservations, surfaced in conversations that first night in the Santa Marta guest house and led many undecided electors to conclude that if he could not govern well in the Roman Curia, he might not be able to govern the Catholic Church.
At the same time, however, Ouellet had some highly influential supporters besides the Americans. Among them was Cardinal Joachim Meissner, the archbishop of Cologne, Germany, since 1989 and for nine years before that archbishop of Berlin. Widely considered the leading “conservative” in the German church, he was known to be very close to John Paul II and a life-long friend of Joseph Ratzinger. He wanted to ensure that the next pope would faithfully follow the line and vision of his two predecessors. And so, that Tuesday night in Santa Marta, he was seen standing outside the door of his room urging fellow electors, “Vote for Ouellet! Bergoglio is too old!”
As for Bergoglio, the first vote revealed that he was indeed a strong candidate, stronger than many had realized. There were many factors in Bergoglio’s favor. He was known to be a very holy man, a humble, intelligent, inspiring pastor, devoid of ambition, who avoided the limelight, lived a simple life and had a passionate love for the poor. He had never lived or studied in Rome and did not have a Roman outlook. He had governed the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires for 15 years in a truly pastoral way, with decisiveness, prudence and creativity; he had a talent for government. Ever since the 2001 synod his stature had grown internationally, and at the Celam meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007, he had emerged as the undisputed leader of the church in this region, where almost 50 percent of the world’s Catholics live. Above all, he was a man of courage with a vision, a missionary vision, able to open new horizons for the church, a man committed to dialogue—with Jews, with Muslims, with other Christians and with those who professed no faith. He was above all a pastor. His brief intervention in the General Congregation as well as his interaction with many cardinals during these days had revealed this clearly.
As the undecided electors considered whom to cast their vote for the following morning, three factors leaned heavily in Bergoglio’s favor: First, the great majority of Latin American cardinals were supporting him, with not one of them speaking badly about him; second, he had revealed his ability to communicate and inspire when he had given his brief but refreshing intervention in the General Congregation; and third, he had support from Asians and Africans as well as Europeans. In addition, 68 electors who had participated in the 2005 conclave knew him as runner-up then, and several—like Maradiaga, Monswengo, Walter Kasper, Jean-Louis Tauran, Turkson, Gracias and others, too—did not disguise their active support for him.
The undecided had this night to make up their minds; tomorrow morning, they would have to cast their votes again….