Vatican Diary: A New Papacy Begins

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MASTER OF CEREMONIES: Italian Bishop Piero Marini assists the Pope during mass in 2003

Friday, April 22, 11 pm, Vatican City
I was rushing out as the crowd was rushing in. It was about six minutes after the bells began to toll over St. Peter's Square, confirming that the smoke was white and we indeed had a Papam. The descending swarm from every direction into the piazza was dazzling, but I was the only soul going in the other direction. This was going to be a case of the reporter missing the experience for the sake of the story. The plan for our three-person team, which included TIME colleagues Jordan Bonfante and Marguerite Michaels, was that I would follow the announcement from the Vatican press office in case the name was released a few moments before to reporters (as they'd done when John Paul II died). With the identity of the new pontiff in hand, I would then zip over to the nearby Catholic bookstores and buy whatever titles had been written about and by the new pope. For some of the papabile candidates, we figured there might only be one or two volumes relating to his life and work, and we wanted to be prepared for the cover package for next week's issue of TIME.

Assessing the New Pope
Photos: The New Pope
TIME 100: Cardinal Ratzinger
Send Us Your Thoughts
The Next Pope (Jan. 2005)
TIME on Ratzinger (1993)
The New Papal Job Specs
Web Exclusive
Daily reports from the scene in Vatican City
The New Bishop of Rome
Ratzinger Gets a Cold
Top 10 Papal Candidates
The Conclave's Length
Cardinals Do Lunch
Chasing Italian Cardinals
Reading the Silence
The Return of Cardinal Law
Learn more about the Papacy in the TIME Archive
TIME Covers: Popes
TIME Archive Home
Collection: John Paul II
Commemorative Reprint
Digital Magazine: 1978

This deployment arrangement would be a bit of a personal sacrifice, forcing me to miss the big moment in the piazza. But as the permanent Rome correspondent, I know my way around the press office and the local bookstores better than my colleagues from out of town, who could collect the color and reaction from the crowd. Still, even after seven years in Rome, I continue to forget how things really work here. The bookstores were closing down just as I arrived. The owners also wanted to be in the piazza for Habemus Papam! And so thanks to them, I would be there too, not watching the press room TV screen, but living the swirl of history that unfolded from that central balcony of St. Peter's.

The past three weeks will not be easily forgotten, both on a professional and personal level. For seven years, I had watched Pope John Paul II from near and far, and had come to admire him perhaps like no other figure I'd ever covered. Of course, I'd missed his prime: the outcries from his unpopular stances on Church doctrine, his inspiring globetrotting and world-changing ways. But I did get to see flashes of his famous charisma, both in occasional moments of physical and verbal strength and in the way he faced down illness and death with utter dignity. At the time, it was difficult to watch John Paul's final two appearances from his window in the papal apartments last month. But when we will watch it in the future, that final frail and pained image just a few days from death will fit in perfectly alongside his other moments of extraordinary strength and courage: standing up to the Communist regime in Poland, calling on Mafia warlords in Sicily to repent, slipping in a private prayer in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

In the two weeks since, his eventual successor Joseph Ratzinger has put on a tour de force that would impress Karol Wojtyla. Now that he is Pope Benedict XVI, it all seems pre-destined. But back when TIME reported a story in early January saying then Cardinal Ratzinger had reemerged as a leading frontrunner for the papacy, it was still difficult for many to imagine. One Vatican source told me this week that some colleagues were laughing about the piece when it came out, thinking Ratzinger was long since out of the running because he'd been branded as a doctrinal hardliner and unpleasant bureaucrat. But in fact, my sources were on target. Still, to go from frontrunner to Pope required that Ratzinger demonstrated that he was indeed a many-sided man, but always a holy one. "He took it to another level," was how one Vatican official put it. While I salute Jordan and Marguerite, who brought TIME's coverage in Rome to another level, I'm set to cover this papacy from the outset. I will make sure to keep one foot in the bookstore and the other in the piazza — and do my best to miss neither the story, nor the experience.

Tuesday, April 19, 11 pm, Vatican City
Romans have an old adage that captures their world-wise acceptance of life's minor calamities: "When a Pope dies," they say, "you find another." Inhabitants of the Eternal City, which has absorbed so much history, apply the metaphor when governments fall or jobs are lost or a bus breaks down. And indeed, as we have witnessed today and over the past two weeks, the Roman Catholic Church remains quite adept at filling a void even as large as the loss of John Paul II. Replacing an absolute monarch without the benefit of bloodlines is no mean task. Taking an ancient religious rite of passage and turning it into a two-week-long worldwide broadcast spectacle, with the only glitch a few minutes of gray smoke, may indeed require the Holy Spirit on your side.

Despite the worldwide interest, Pope Ratzinger—I still need some time to get used to saying Benedict XVI—may be wise to focus first on the people of Rome. Along with being the Vicar of Christ and the Supreme Pontiff of the Church, the pope is also the bishop of this city—and the Romans feel it. Fabrizio Magnani, a 65-year-old real estate broker was on his way to meet a client near St. Peter's when the radio announced white smoke and ringing bells. He parked his car as soon as he could and joined "a river of people" rushing into the Piazza to see who would be the new pontiff. "In Rome, the pope is something all our own," he said, waiting in the raucous square just minutes before the name was announced in Latin. "We're used to seeing him out here every Sunday, every Wednesday. And when there's no pope, it's like not having bread."

The cupboard is full again. Unlike when the virtually unknown Papa Wojtyla was elected 26 years ago, the 78-year-old German has been a major public presence here for more than two decades. And the Romans, and Italians more generally, will be the first to gauge how "Cardinale Ratzinger" will evolve into "Il Papa." His predecessor, who was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, won over many hearts the very first evening he spoke to the Piazza: "I will speak in your, OUR language," he toned to the faithful below. "And when I make a mistake, you will correct me!" Ratzinger already speaks flawless Italian (as well as half-a-dozen other languages), and may have won over some with his moving homily at John Paul's funeral 10 days ago. This evening, he actually stumbled over a few words in his first greeting as Pope, but Romans got to see the widest smile ever seen from the sometimes-severe Ratzinger. Still he may have other kinds of corrections to make. He was seen by progressives here, like in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, as the symbol of the last papacy's doctrinal rigidity. To those in step with Pope John Paul's theological stance, Ratzinger was part guru and part policy wonk on the most fundamental Church questions.

But he has a new job now. As he did tonight, he will have to speak directly to the people, who will inevitably judge him against the standard of his imposing predecessor, friend and boss. This small, unassuming white-haired figure who we will now and forever know as Benedict XVI told the piazza this evening that he was just a "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord." Now he must begin to fill the role of pastor, of leader of the flock, a shepherd who can move the faithful and cast his own large shadow across this grand piazza, this blessed city, and a turbulent world outside.

Monday, April 18, 11 pm, Vatican City
Ratzinger Under the Weather
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has a cold. The sniffles and hoarse voice didn't stop the 78-year-old German from giving a forceful homily this morning in the final public mass before the 115 elector cardinals were locked off from the world. But when I heard him cough, when I saw him reach for a handkerchief from the sleeve of his scarlet vestments, I remembered a conversation I had last week with a Vatican insider convinced that Ratzinger was perfectly positioned to succeed John Paul II. "Anything can happen of course," the source told me. "Ratzinger could wake up Monday with a cold." There's obviously no way to know if some undecided cardinals saw a sign from above in Ratzinger's minor health hiccup, or if it reminded others that he may be too old. But the rest of us are looking for signals everywhere while we wait for the only one that counts: the Sistine's white smoke. As expected, the first puff this evening was black, though the atmosphere in St. Peter's Square was just short of electrifying, with some of the tens of thousands gathered surging closer to the Basilica as the first wisps of smoke came out just after 8 p.m. local time. Tuesday the real drama will begin, as any subsequent vote could be the one to push one of the Cardinals over the two-thirds necessary to claim the papacy.

In search of any other signs, a Roman friend told me about an old Italian fable that tells of a boy who can understand what the animals are saying to each other. The special gift saves the young lad from a litany of perilous encounters until one evening, while resting under a tree with two friends, he hears two little birds sharing the news from Rome that the Pope had died. The cardinals are set to elect a successor, one bird tells the other, and one of the three boys under the tree will be the next pope. This of course sends the protagonist off to Rome, leaving his two oblivious companions behind. Once in the eternal city, as ancient legend holds, a dove landed on his head, designating him as the next pontiff. And the boy went on to be one of the great popes in history.

With no sightings of any dove landings in St. Peter's today, we were left pondering Cardinal Ratzinger's speech from the morning mass, the last sign to the outside world of the 115 electors communicating amongst themselves. Assigned the honor as the dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger gave another homily, like the one delivered at John Paul's funeral last Friday, that was eloquent and direct. Today we saw a side of Ratzinger that was very different from the unifying figure who so gracefully and humbly eulogized the Pope. The message inside St. Peter's was clear: the truth of Catholic Church teaching is absolute, and its pastors must guard against "a dictatorship of relativism" that dominates modern society. An aide to a European voting Cardinal was not convinced: "It's what a lot of Cardinals in there want to hear, but it's not the right message at this moment in the Church's history." Later, I was chatting with National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent John Allen, who said "if there is any doubt that Ratzinger was campaigning for the job, this makes it clear he was not. That's not the homily of someone who wants to convince the undecided Cardinals." Still, Ratzinger path to the job was never to campaign, but to hold firm to his unwavering certainty about the truth of the Gospels. Cold, or no cold.

Sunday, April 17, 8 pm, Vatican City
Our Top Ten Papal Candidates

The unique high-stakes and secret campaign for electing a pope rides a pendulum between the sacred and the profane. At this late hour, the latter seems predominant as bookies grow busier and politicking amongst the cardinals sharpens. Inside the Conclave, which begins on Monday, all of that is supposed to give way to each cardinal�s most holy obligation to seek out the right man to be the 264th successor to Peter. Still, the race today appears no more predictable than it did two weeks ago. But I�ll run the risk of declaring my Top 10 papal candidates, though I�ve included a safety net as No. 5. But not even that is foolproof, since Church law allows that any baptized male can be elected Pope. So good luck to all of those you out there!

1. DIONIGI TETTAMANZI, 71, Archbishop of Milan. A compromise candidate who could satisfy the minority progressives and reassure the traditionalists. It may be the most painless path to the necessary two-thirds required for election.

2. JOSEPH RATZINGER, 78, German head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Respected by all cardinals, but feared by some as too divisive. Considered the best adapted to finish off John Paul II�s doctrinal legacy.

3. IVAN DIAS, 69, Archbishop of Bombay. Strong diplomatic experience and friend of the Roman Curia, who would represent a bold choice from the developing world.

4. JORGE MARIO BERGOGLIO, 68, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. A South American respected among the conservative crowd in Rome. Would be first Jesuit pope.


6. CHRISTOPH SCHONBORN, 60, Archbishop of Vienna. Wojtyla-esque charisma with a nice touch of noble blood. Master linguist and stalwart on doctrine.

7. CAMILLO RUINI, 74, Vicar of Rome. Best positioned backup to Ratzinger as an option for a transitional papacy.

8. NORBERTO RIVERA CARRERA, 62, Archbishop of Mexico City. Unwavering on traditional doctrine, and carries himself with papal eminence.

9. CLAUDIO HUMMES, 70, Archbishop of Sao Paolo. Appealing alternative for moderates. Seemed to lose momentum over the past two weeks, though reportedly spoke passionately about missionary work in the Cardinals� last official pre-conclave meeting.

10. JOSE SARAIVA MARTINS, 73, Portuguese head of Congregation for the Causes of Saints. An outsider compromise candidate with an affable air. He could appeal both to Latin America and the Roman Curia.

Saturday, April 16, 10 pm, Vatican City
How the Conclave's Duration May Determine its Choice
Beyond the question of 'Who? ' is the question of 'When?' Even amid the constant swirl of names of potential papal candidates, we are also trying to figure out how long the conclave might last. The answer to the second question may in fact help to answer the first. For example, a flash conclave that lasts just one or two days (one to five ballots) would most likely mean that one of the clear frontrunners will stride out above St. Peter�s Square as the new Pope: Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, Dionigi Tettamanzi of Italy, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. These are figures that the Cardinals are already pondering as you read this, and may be prepared to rally behind from the moment the voting begins on Monday afternoon. If things begin to drag out, it may very well mean that the Cardinals — or at least the necessary two thirds — were not convinced by the initial choices, and have been forced to look elsewhere. One name that has continued to pop up in the Italian press this week is the Archbishop of Lisbon, Jose da Cruz Policarpo, 69, who could be a compromise candidate, with strong links to both Europe and Latin America.

Still, like the names themselves, scenarios about the timing are speculative. The cardinals could, in these final 48 hours before they move together into the Santa Marta hotel inside the Vatican, begin to converge on an outsider to point to in the early voting. Or they could find themselves waiting in vain to see if someone new emerges in the early balloting, before turning to one of the established figures. In any case, if there is no Pope by Friday, alarms of "A Church Divided!" may start ringing around the world.

This pre-conclave period has been like no other in modern history. Beyond the mass media attention, and the corresponding reaction of the Cardinals to clam up, there is the simple fact that the election of a Polish pope last time has opened the range of potential pontiffs to the whole world — every pope of the previous 455 years had been Italian, meaning that prognosticating elections meant sizing up the candidates from Italy, and perhaps dropping in a foreign papabile for good luck. Instead, over the past two weeks, just about every hypothesis from every corner of the globe has been whispered in our ears: Australia's George Pell, Italy's Severino Poletto, Canada's Mark Ouellet, Chile's Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, Ukraine's Lubomyr, United States' Theodore McCarrick. Each, for a different reason, seems highly improbable. Someone even dropped the name of the Cardinal from Lyon Philippe Barbarin to my colleague Jordan Bonfante, who promptly looked him up in the Vatican's Annuario Pontificio, to find he was born in 1950. �Sure," Jordan quipped, "a French babyboomer!?"

Jordan well knows the folly of seeking that magic name. Currently a contributor in Berlin, he had been TIME's Rome bureau chief in 1978. The week before the conclave that elected the virtually unknown Karol Wojtyla, TIME was one of just a handful of publications in the world to include him on its list of papabile. For years it was a legendary scoop in TIME circles. Jordan recalled last week that the first tip that the next pope might be Wojtyla did not come from on high, but was given to correspondent Roland Flamini by the young owner of a small Catholic book store. But back then, without a press blackout, they could at least run the name by a Cardinal or two. This year, we won't be making predictions in the magazine, but tune in tomorrow on TIME.COM for my top 10 papal candidates.

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