Pope Benedict XVI: The Conquest of Rome

The stealth campaign for Ratzinger began 18 months ago. An inside look at how he won

  • In the days before the conclave, almost every Cardinal who deigned to speak to the press declared that he was praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance in choosing the successor to John Paul II. The Holy Spirit's efforts in this particular case began 18 months ago, with a stealth campaign that in the end transfigured an unpalatable candidate into the inevitable Pontiff, turning Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany into Pope Benedict XVI. The momentum, orchestrated by key Curia Cardinals, was such that a last-ditch attempt by liberals to derail it petered out after the first round of voting. "They didn't realize how strong Ratzinger was," says an aide to a Cardinal who almost certainly did not vote for the German. "The reformers have been out of touch with this growing tide around Ratzinger."

    Back in October 2003, as a litany of papabili, or potential candidates, was intoned by the press amid one of John Paul II's health crises, Ratzinger wasn't mentioned at all. The favorite was an Italian, Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi of Milan. Even though Ratzinger was dean of the College of Cardinals, many saw him as past his prime. Moreover, his work as John Paul's ideological enforcer had made him a divisive figure in the church. "He had fallen off the radar," says a Curia official. But something was afoot that October. A Cardinal in the Curia, in conversation with another Vatican official, suddenly said, "I like Ratzinger's chances." Surprised at the time, the official now says, "Getting elected Pope is more a question of how many enemies you have than friends. And I thought Ratzinger still had too many enemies."

    But John Paul, in spite of his ailments, was attending to that problem. In October 2003 he would not only persevere to celebrate his 25th anniversary as Pope but also forge ahead with an exhausting ceremony to install a new batch of Cardinals. By the time of his death, he had appointed 115 of the 117 Cardinals eligible to vote, stacking the college with men who were more likely to want to continue his conservative policies. Just as important, in the ensuing months most of the influential Cardinals of liberal stripe would pass the voting age limit of 80. The only one of stature left to rally wavering Cardinals to the liberal cause was Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini. But his clout was limited. In 2002 the Pope had allowed the ailing Martini to leave his power base in Milan to pursue his love of biblical scholarship in faraway Jerusalem. The Pope, on the other hand, refused to let Ratzinger give up his bureaucratic jobs in the Curia.

    By the end of 2003, instead of being exhausted by work, Ratzinger appeared to have been rejuvenated. Not only did he keep on publishing books and papers, but he also became more audible as a conservative voice in European and global affairs. He became particularly visible in Italy, which was expressing some nostalgia for an Italian papacy after years of a Polish Pope. Ratzinger wrote several articles for major Italian papers. "All of a sudden last year," said a senior Vatican official, "he had become the darling of the [conservative] Italian intelligentsia."

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