Paul Wilkes: When in Rome

From John Paul II's funeral to Benedict XVI's election, Beliefnet's correspondent reports on the momentous events in Rome.

Read Paul Wilkes' on-scene reports:

Week 1:

Dispatches 1-6

Week 2:

Dispatches 7-11

Dispatch 12:

The Other German

Dispatch 13:

Snapshots from the Conclave

Dispatch 14:

Collegiality and the College of Cardinals

Dispatch 15:

Pope Benedict XVI

Dispatch 16:

Anatomy of an Election

Dispatch 17:

Print Out This List

Print Out This List

As I rode to the airport after spending three weeks in Rome, the brilliant purple flowers of the Japanese cherry trees were blazing in their full spring glory. Three weeks before, there was nothing. Brown, naked branches. When I arrived, a pope had just died; I leave as his successor has just begun his reign.

That successor, who appeared unbending as the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who unequivocally railed against relativism and extolled fundamentalism as the conclave began, became the Benedict XVI who at his installation Sunday proclaimed humbly that he would “...listen, together with the whole church, to the word and will of the Lord.”

This dramatic transformation of a doctrinal watchdog into a gentle pastor has the Catholic world -– and the entire world -– wondering what to make of Benedict XVI. Do his words signal a new, more dynamic and open Catholic Church or, like the blossoms, the flashy onset of still another predictable season?

Many say we should wait and see and, of course, that is what we must do. But let me offer a way to do that. I want to put before you a series of questions, a series of litmus tests, so that we can better evaluate this man -– with the incredibly difficult job he has –- in the months ahead.

Print out this list and tack it onto on your bulletin board or attach it to the refrigerator with a magnet. Every once in a while, take a look. I assembled these questions after consulting a wide range of Catholics -- priests, an advertising executive, a CPA, a former writer for a diocesan paper, an executive at one of our major TV networks, a diocesan staff person, a dozen others.

What do you think? What are your impressions and questions?


  • How is the pope doing in reaching out to those on the margins of the Church, the less-than-perfect, lapsed, or alienated Catholics?

  • Does he show an understanding that there is an ‘ideal’ church of Rome and a ‘real’ church for most people?

  • Has he appointed women and lay people to positions that were previously the province of the clergy?

  • Has he appointed pastoral leaders not only loyalists to key positions, as new bishops?

  • In his talks and in his actions, do we sense the emphasis is more on “obeying the Church” or “encountering the Christ” in the lives of everyday people?

  • Has he allowed theologians to creatively explore paths to God and to freely express their ideas, even those that he might have issue with?

  • Is he giving individual bishops and national bishops’ conferences leeway in seeing the needs and governing in their home dioceses?

  • Is the pope actively seeking the input of his bishops in the governance of the worldwide Church?

  • Instead of papal proclamations from Rome, are we witnessing letters written in collaboration with the laity and clergy from various parts of the world--letters that respond pastorally to church issues?

  • Synods are meetings on a special issue that seek a wide input so that the Church can better function. Are synods under Benedict XVI open to varying points of view, and does the final report accurately portray what the participants brought up?

  • On the “hot button” issues like optional celibacy, women’s ordination, homosexuality, free theological expression -- is the pope listening to those who have views different from his own?

  • Will he support more imaginative thinking on issues that vex the church?

  • Is the pope making honest gestures of sorrow toward the many men and women abused by priests and nuns, admonishing the bishops involved in the cover-up, and insisting on preventive measures?

  • Is he a pope of the people or of the Curia?

  • Is he reaching out in humility and candor to other faiths whose gateway to God is not Jesus Christ?

  • Do we have a sense that this is a new and exciting era in the Catholic Church...or not?

    Anatomy of an Election

    What went on inside the papal conclave that stunned the world not only by acting quickly, but by choosing a conservative loyalist to virtually step into the footprints of the conservative John Paul II?

    Someday we may know the full story, gleaned from words spoken openly or leaked inadvertently by one or some of the 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church who were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel and vowed to secrecy—under the pain of excommunication—not to reveal any of proceedings.

    But after talking to Vatican insiders and others with years of access to the Curia, and after piecing together shreds of evidence from interviews with church leaders and other experienced Vatican watchers, here is this reporter’s reconstruction of what may have occurred.

    Although there had been enormous speculation about the possibility of electing a pope from the Third World, it was obvious early on to Vatican experts that this was an extremely outside possibility. The churches of Africa and Asia, though growing, are still relatively young and fielded no strong candidates. Cardinal Arinze’s name surfaced only to sink quickly; apparently he couldn't gain traction. The church of South and Central America had cardinals like Hummes of Brazil and Maradiaga of Honduras, but at 70 and 62 respectively, both were too young to promise the shorter papacy that cardinals seemed to want following the lengthy reign of John Paul II.

    No Americans were ever serious choices; they have neither great support nor standing among their peers—besides which the cardinals would never allow a spiritual seat of power to be occupied by one whose country already powerfully dominates world politics and economics.

    As for the Italians, although the name of Tettamanzi of Milan had been circulating for months, if not years, as a sort of John XXIII-type of portly, fatherly figure, he was in fact neither imbedded in the hearts of Italians generally (and this tide of public sentiment is not only an element in papal elections, but part of the home-court advantage of Italians), nor was he considered a major player among the cardinals. That he did not speak English was considered a distinct disadvantage.

    As for the progressive cardinals, there were but few of them, and support did not appear to coalesce around any specific candidate. Martini was retired and reputed to have Parkinson’s Disease, Danneels of Belgium, Murphy-O’Connor of Great Britain, and Kasper of Germany, while darlings of those who wanted to set out on the bold path marked by Kasper’s eleventh hour plea, were anomalies among John Paul II's choices, and outnumbered by the vast majority of conservative-leaning cardinals he had appointed. More moderate candidates like Policarpo of Portugal and Lustiger of France would only surface as viable if progressive and conservative voting blocs were deadlocked.

    According to aides to two non-American cardinals, Ratzinger entered the conclave with significant backing: Julian Herranz of Spain, head of the Vatican's department for interpreting legislative texts; Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, head of the department in charge of the clergy; and Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. All three have ties to the conservative renewal movement Opus Dei. Apparently, the Spanish-speaking cardinals didn't back a Latin American candidate, as many people speculated they might.

    Now, looking back, the conclave may have played out in a very predictable fashion. As Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said after an otherwise news-less press conference this morning at the North American College, “For us in the conclave, it was a moment of grace. And a time of angst” that they would choose the right man.

    So, a certain nervousness was present. The cardinals’ every move had been broadcast around the world for the past two weeks. They were both pleased with the coverage, and they felt vulnerable and overexposed. They knew as soon as the white smoke floated from the Sistine Chapel chimney, they would be descended upon once more to say where the new pontificate would be heading. They wanted to come out with heads high, having proven themselves capable of making such a momentous decision in a reasonably short period of time.

    So why not choose a pope who would assure the “continuity” that had become the iconic word in the days before the conclave—and one they all knew well? No one filled that description better than the powerful and popular pope's right-hand man, Joseph Ratzinger.

    The histories of papal conclaves tell us that the first vote, which occurred Monday afternoon, is often a straw vote in which dominant candidates receive substantial, but not conclusive, support. Other “favorite son” candidates—for instance, a younger man voting for the venerable cardinal who mentored him, just so his benefactor could take to the grave his single step toward the Chair of St. Peter—would receive a wide but shallow sprinkling of votes. Traditionally, these votes change on the second ballot.

    The estimate in the Italian press of Ratzinger’s first-round votes fluctuated between 40 and 50. Who else might have received a substantial number of votes to challenge Ratzinger, creating a deadlock whereupon a compromise candidate would have to be found? That is the mystery we may someday discover. Today, 24 hours after the vote, I cannot find out if there ever was a serious challenger. It may be that the bloc favoring conservatism and continuity were united around him, while those opposed were divided among a number of other candidates.

    Cardinal McCarrick experienced angst; Cardinal Marc Oueliet of Canada was so restless he had to reach for a bible in the middle of the night, and then first thing upon rising. He had drawn one of the larger rooms in Domus Sancta Marthae, the residence built especially for the conclaves. Cardinal Ratzinger, now the front-runner, had a room no bigger than a “broom closet,” the Canadian noted.

    In the conclave the cardinals wore their elegant scarlet robes, at meals, clerical black. There, at table, and while walking the Vatican grounds, they chose various other cardinals from other parts of the world to speak with, to talk about the qualities of various candidates, the needs of the church. “It was like a tower of Babel,” Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, another Canadian, related to the press after the conclave. “It wasn’t always easy to be understand.” Cardinals sought a common language, sometimes even lapsing into Latin when all else failed.

    On Tuesday, chanting the Litany of the Saints, the cardinals filed once more into the Sistine Chapel. Each round of voting was an excruciatingly slow process, taking about three hours, with each cardinal coming forward to deliver his vote and three cardinals doing the tallying. Some men read, others prayed the rosary, or nodded off to sleep.

    As the two votes continued on Tuesday morning, Ratzinger’s numbers probably increased, but were not sufficient to elect him. Who was in his camp from the beginning? Certainly, many within the Curia who knew that Ratzinger could be trusted to keep the powerful bureaucracy intact. In matters like this, he was not an innovator. Among the ideologically like-minded, Ratzinger had the advantage of being the conservative star among ordinary conservatives—he had clamped down on alleged abuses in the church language and liturgy, whipsawed theologians, had written the controversial Dominus Iesus which unequivocally stated the primacy of Catholicism and the “deficiency” of other Christian faiths and non-Christian traditions. He was akin to an American evangelical Christian. In Ratzinger’s case: salvation through not only Jesus Christ, but in the Catholic Church alone.

    His age was perfect, 78, promising both continuity and brevity, a way for the cardinals to catch their breath after John Paul II’s long reign. And his credentials were impeccable. He had used the buzzword “fundamentalism” triumphantly and unequivocally at the Mass of the Holy Sprit that launched the conclave Monday morning. Although there was a sprinkling of cardinals considered even more traditionalistic than Ratzinger, they were too bizarre and not known well enough to be elected. There were actually not too many to the right of Ratzinger; he dominated and embraced a wide swath of the cardinals.

    With the votes on Tuesday morning, his numbers may have grown while no one else’s did. Cardinals remembered little favors he had done for them. (In the press conference today, Cardinal Egan of New York noted that Ratzinger had left a retreat to return to Rome to send him off.) The Third World cardinals, who are equal in voting power but certainly not in influence, knew Ratzinger as their rabbi, their fixer. He could pave the way among curial offices, assist in getting needed aid, push through stalled paperwork. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, all roads led to him. Ratzinger could make things happen; the cardinals felt comfortable because while they didn’t know each other well, they all knew him, somewhat shy, self-effacing, prayerful, helpful, and courteous—as well as decisive and only second in power to John Paul II.

    By Tuesday afternoon, perhaps the holdouts were capitulating. It was obvious who was going to win; why keep the world waiting? It would show a bold and clear-headed decisiveness on their part. Cardinals like to leave a conclave having voted for the eventual winner, the man before whom they would soon kneel, and pledge their troth, whose hand they would kiss in the ultimate act of submission to God’s will. After all, there was no real competition. Ratzinger’s name was called out over and over again as the votes were counted. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Great Britain recalled to the Associated Press the “suspense” in the great hall as the cardinals in the great room knew that they would soon have a pope. “When the majority was reached, after 77 or 78 votes, there was a sort of gasp all around, and then everyone clapped,” he said. Cardinal Ratzinger’s hands were still. He “had his head down,” Murphy-O’Connor said, “I think he must have said a prayer.”

    The cardinals awaited the new pope's formal acceptance. In a low voice roughened by a cold, Ratzinger told them he would like to be known as Benedict XVI, honoring Saint Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, and Benedict XV, the pope who tried to stop the First World War. "I, too, hope in this short reign to be a man of peace," the new pope said, according to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

    Then, as a body, the group rose to applaud their new leader. There were smiles. Cardinal Joachim Meisner, another German, wept. Joseph Ratzinger looked, according to Meisner, “a little forlorn” as he left to change into his papal vestments in the Room of Tears, given that name because the newly elected leader of the Catholic Church would often break down into tears, realizing what had just happened and what lay ahead.

    "It's wonderful to be in a group of 115 people, and you're all equals. You're all talking: Eminence this, Eminence that, first name this, first name that. And then suddenly, one of you is different," said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington. "He's no longer one of you. He's the Holy Father, the successor to Peter and the Vicar of the Christ."

    This fraternity of equals now parted company, never to be the same again. Joseph Ratzinger proceeded to the balcony of St. Peter’s to be proclaimed Benedict XVI, the 265th pontiff. His fellow cardinals crowded onto other balconies to watch him address some 100,000 people below. The new pope was on the balcony for perhaps twenty minutes. After his election, Pope Benedict invited all the cardinals to stay and dine with him, as John Paul had done in 1978. They ate Italian bean soup, chicken cordon bleu and ice cream, washing it down with spumante. At the end of the evening, he returned to the humble room he had left that morning as Joseph Ratzinger to spend the night.

    Pope Benedict XVI

    With the word “Joseph” the applause erupted from the expectant crowd, which had overflowed St. Peter’s Square. They knew the rest of his name. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a confidant of Pope John Paul II, his loyal head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was now his successor. He will no longer be Joseph, but Benedict, Benedict XVI, the 265th successor of Peter, the humble fisherman, the rock upon whom Christ founded his church.

    There was initial confusion in the square at 6 P.M., Rome time, as the smoke curling out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney was first murky then white, murky, white. But finally the great bell high atop St. Peter slowly began to move. There was no doubt now. “Habemus papam,” as Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez announced from the famed balcony of St. Peter’s, “We have a pope.”

    Cardinal Ratzinger had staked his candidacy on two crucial homilies over the past ten days, one of which was a glowing tribute to Pope John Paul II and his legacy at the pontiff’s funeral. The second was a bold statement of his traditionalist thinking at the Mass of the Holy Spirit that began the conclave on Monday. He condemned liberalism and relativism and firmly embraced, “fundamentalism” as the true path for Catholics.

    That he was elected so quickly was testament to the collective will of the cardinals—virtually all appointed by John Paul II—that the deceased pope’s strict interpretation and enforcement of Catholic teaching be continued. While it may never be known exactly how the vote went within the conclave, since the cardinals are sworn to secrecy, both the speed and the outcome defied the predictions of most Vatican experts. Most expected the conclave to last until at least tomorrow, as the cardinals searched for a compromise candidate. Most also expressed skepticism that any of the obvious front-runners, Cardinal Ratzinger among them, would be chosen. But there obviously was no call for compromise if Ratzinger won so soundly in just the fourth round of voting.

    The mood of the crowd in St. Peter’s was in keeping with the man chosen to be pope—happy the election was over, but restrained. The man who is now Pope Benedict XVI extended his arms to the crowd, clasped his hands together in a victory grasp, but seemed almost to force a smile from time to time. Those who have seen him outside of his official capacities say he is a good dinner companion, extremely intelligent, but a man careful with his words and emotions.

    Chants of “Papa, Papa” rose up from the crowd, but died down after no more than a minute or so. It was not the emotional welcome that in 1958, for example, greeted Pope John XXIII, who was beloved by the Italian people and, with his pudgy face, immediately endeared himself to the rest of the world.

    Benedict XVI’s more stern appearance was still greeted warmly, and people I talked to as the square emptied after the new pope’s somewhat short appearance and greeting, rendered only in Italian, were generally pleased with the choice. “Brilliant,” said John Goleska of Bristol, England. “ After all, the cardinals know best what we need.” Erich Eitel of Rostock in Ratzinger’s native Germany, who kept his hands reverently folded as the crowd waited for the announcement, struggled to put his thoughts into English. “Consistent” was the word he finally found that summarized his thinking. “Yes, in the line with John Paul II, a continuation.”

    Two priests from England were beaming. “Liberal Catholics will just have to get used to it,” they said, their tone more suggestive of an attempt at unity than their actual words. An American seminarian said, following up, “It’ll be okay. It will be a short reign and Ratzinger isn’t all people say he is.”

    The installation of Pope Benedict XVI will be held Sunday at St. Peter’s.

  • Continued on page 2: »

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