VATICAN CITY – He wasn’t at the top of the lists of candidates that Vatican experts, pundits and journalists considered most likely to become the next pope. In fact, he wasn’t on most lists at all.
So when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the cardinal of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was announced as the 266th pope Wednesday night in St. Peter’s Square, most of the world was caught off guard.
How did Bergoglio seem to come from out of nowhere and sweep to the papacy? And do it barely 24 hours after the voting by 115 cardinals started, even though experts had predicted a drawn-out conclave because of deep divisions among the cardinals and no clear front-runner?
In the end, it turned out there was a front-runner, or at least a very strong contender. Only the world did not know it.
Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was elected after five ballots, almost as quickly as his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who made it in four votes. John Paul II was elected after eight ballots.
Much of the misreading of what the cardinals were doing behind closed doors as they selected the new pope is being laid at the feet of the Italian media. It reported on who the front-runners were, and much of the international media and church experts took their lead, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
“This shows that the Italian press doesn’t know what it is talking about when it comes to the papal election,” said Reese, who is in Rome. “We were all fools for paying attention. The Vaticanistas are supposed to know all this stuff. They obviously didn’t.”
Jason Berry, author of “Vows of Silence” about the Vatican and the church sex abuse scandal, agreed the local press didn’t get it right — and much of the world followed. “This election shows the utter fallibility of the Italian press,” he said.
The major Italian papers had reported a tight race shaping up between candidates, including Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy and Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil.
“No one ever took Bergoglio seriously, even though he came in second last time” behind Benedict XVI, Berry said.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston were also mentioned as potential candidates — the first time Americans seemed to have a serious chance.
In the end, it was the unheralded Bergoglio leading the pack. Most Vatican experts, church analysts and journalists never reported that, although a few had a sense of what was going on in the Sistine Chapel this week and the week before when the cardinals held general meetings.
Longtime Vatican reporter John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries,” said his sources were telling him Bergoglio “spoke up clearly and forcefully during general congregations” the week before “and got the cardinals’ attention.” Thavis reported that Monday, the day before the conclave convened, on his blog.
In retrospect, Bergoglio fit the profile the cardinals were looking for, analysts said. “It was the cardinals recognizing that the church’s universal center needed a new style of papacy, one that was simpler and more focused on standing with the poor,” Thavis said.
“They also wanted someone to restore order in the Roman Curia and make it less of a barrier between bishops and the pope,” he said.
That he was elected so quickly showed he was not a compromise candidate of factions among the 115 cardinals, church experts said. Rather, he had strong support from the outset as their first choice.
“He obviously entered with some gravitas,” Berry said. “He obviously had people behind him from the outset.”
The quick selection also showed the cardinals were not as split over many issues as widely reported, said Dennis Coday, editor of the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter.
“The cardinals showed unity at the same time the media portrayed them as divided,” he said.