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October 11, 2005

Behind Closed Doors and Sealed Windows--an unexpected look at the election of the Pope
by Jon M. Sweeney

An unnamed cardinal has broken his vow of silence regarding last April’s conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope. The cardinal has published his anonymous account of those eventful and mysterious days in an Italian journal.

The published text—which is an unprecedented step of broken secrecy taken by a cardinal in the modern era—unveils many details about the behind-closed-doors meetings that elected Pope Benedict XVI.

Contrary to Vatican reports at the time, a cardinal from the Third World was a serious challenger to Cardinal Ratzinger’s election. Also Bernard F. Law, the former cardinal of the scandal-plagued Boston diocese, received one mysterious vote to become the next pope on the final ballot that elected Ratzinger.

Four separate ballots were cast during the April 18-19 conclave, which is always held in the ornate Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo. According to this new published account, the Jesuit cardinal from Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, received second-place votes on each of those four ballots. The contest grew tightest in the middle rounds, with Ratzinger taking 65 votes to Bergoglio’s 35 in the second, and Ratzinger with 72 votes to Bergoglio’s 40 in the third. The diary also makes it very clear that Bergoglio did not seek the job, or campaign in any way for it.

The anonymous diarist records that it was U.S. cardinals, in conjunction with cardinals representing Latin America, who led the support for Bergoglio. One other Third World cardinal also received votes on the first ballot of the conclave: Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras (3).

It is not possible for media to interview cardinals after a conclave, as they have taken a vow of secrecy that is rarely violated. In the case of this diary, the vow has been broken, but anonymously. The cardinal in question must want the world to know more about what happened behind closed doors. In particular, many Vatican experts say, he must want the world to know that the College of Cardinals does indeed take seriously the possibility of a future Third World Pope. There are more than 1 billion Roman Catholics in the world today, and half of them live in Latin America.

During and after the April conclave, it was widely reported that retired Milan archbishop, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, was the main challenger to Ratzinger. But, it wasn’t so. Also, Ratzinger won by a relatively narrow margin; conclave rules require a two-thirds majority; in the final ballot, Ratzinger took 84 of 115 votes, when at least 77 were needed to win. By contrast, John Paul II received 99 votes out of 111 cast on the final ballot that elected him in 1979.

The Associated Press interviewed David Gibson, an American journalist and expert on Catholic affairs. Gibson emphasized, “It does seem that somebody wants to indicate that the conclave was a more complex process than was being depicted and that Benedict's mandate was not a slam dunk.”

The diary was published by Lucio Brunelli, a respected Vatican journalist, in an Italian foreign affairs journal, Limes. Brunelli writes in his commentary that he obtained the diary through a source whom he will not name. If the identity of the secret cardinal were to be revealed, excommunication (the stated punishment for violating the conclave) by the pope would probably soon follow.

The diary begins with this entry for Sunday, April 17: “In the afternoon I took over my room at the Casa Santa Marta. I put down my bags and tried to open the blinds because the room was dark. I wasn't able to. One of my fellow brothers asked a nun working there, thinking it was a technical problem. She explained they were sealed. Closure of the conclave. A new experience for almost all of us.”

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. His new book is THE LURE OF SAINTS: A PROTESTANT EXPERIENCE OF CATHOLIC TRADITION.

More by Jon Sweeney.

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