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A new broom sweeps through the Vatican

On the evening of 13 March 2013, I was in my office when a colleague phoned to tell me that white smoke had been seen billowing from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel.

I was quite surprised as the conclave was only in its second day and, I thought, there was no clear favourite for this election, unlike the one in 2005.

I expected that it would take at least a few days to elect a new pope. I headed for the television room to watch events unfold. 

Many of the commentators were almost sure, given the shortness of the conclave, that an Italian, possibly Angelo Cardinal Scola, from Milan, had been elected.

But we were in for many other surprises during the rest of the evening.

Almost immediately, crowds poured into St. Peter’s Square. The Swiss Guards and representatives of the Italian Armed Forces marched in to provide a guard of honour for the new pope.

After more than an hour, a light was switched on in a room on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, stepped out and announced Annuncio vobis, gaudium magnum. Habemus papam (With great joy I tell you, we have a pope).

But everyone was surprised when the name Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio SJ, archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, was read out.

I knew he had figured in the 2005 conclave, but like myself, many thought that at 76 he was too old. I was sure that the cardinals would choose someone in their mid-to-late 60s.

Since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI there had been much speculation about whether the new pope would come from Europe or from another part of the world. The Paddy Power Betting Agency had two Africans, Peter Cardinal Turkson and Francis Cardinal Arinze, on his short list.

Others mentioned one of the youngest cardinals, Luis Cardinal Tagle, archbishop of Manila, as a possible candidate.

Speculation also focussed on two Latin American candidates, Odilo Pedro Cardinal Scherer, from São Paulo, Brazil, who is in his early 60s, and Andrés Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, from Honduras, who is in his late 60s.

Despite this speculation, the firm favourite when the conclave began was Cardinal Scola. In fact, the secretary general of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Monsignor Mariano Crociata, sent a message to journalists expressing joy and thanks to God for the election of the Italian favourite on Wednesday evening (March 13) at 8.20pm.

The trouble was that Cardinal Bergoglio had already been named pope more than an hour earlier. 

Forty minutes later, the Italian bishops’ sent another statement thanking God for the election of the real pope, but this time got the name right!

Many were also surprised that the cardinals had elected a Jesuit. The Jesuits are often seen as an elite corps in the Catholic Church. They have schools, universities and centres right across the world.

Cardinal Bergoglio was the Jesuit superior in Argentina in the 1970s during what was called the Dirty War, when thousands of so-called leftists were murdered by the military dictatorship.

Unlike the Catholic Church in Brazil and Chile, which stood up to the military and protected the people, the Argentine Church, in general, was silent about atrocities which were being committed daily by the military junta.

Possibly the biggest surprise was the choice of his name. He had chosen the name Francis, which had never been taken before.  At an audience for people from the media on Saturday, March 16, he told them why he had chosen Francis.

During the election he was seated beside his good friend, Claudio Cardinal Hummes, who had been archbishop of Sao Paulo in Brazil. When, according to Pope Francis, “Things were looking dangerous he (Cardinal Hummes) encouraged me.”

When the votes reached the two-thirds mark, Cardinal Hummes embraced the newly elected pope and said to him, “Don’t forget the poor.”

Then, according to Pope Francis, “Right away (when) thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars and Francis as a man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart. Francis of Assisi, for me he is also a man of poverty, who loves and protects creation. 

“These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us the spirit of peace, the poor man… how I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.”

I welcome the pontificate of Pope Francis. All the early signs have been positive.


      l Father Sean McDonagh