Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam. I’ll not forget the moment Pope Benedict XVI was elected, five years ago today.
I was on the hill above St Peter’s Square, in the BBC tent, going live for the umpteenth time. The cardinals had been in conclave for two days and the British news channels needed endless commentary to fill the time; and I was happy to offer what I thought were sophisticated analyses of why the next pope would be a Latin-American (Hummes of São Paulo, I ventured). But usually, I added, as an insurance against looking stupid later, Cardinal Ratzinger was, in many ways, the obvious choice.
I knew he was because of snatched conversations with my then boss, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster, when he returned to the English College each evening during the two weeks of discussions the cardinals hold prior to the conclave.
During those discussions, reported my boss in admiration, Joseph Ratzinger addressed each cardinal by name and could speak to him in his own language.
Ratzinger was a focus of unity in the most disparate and most global college of cardinals ever assembled in the Church’s history.
This was one key to Pope Benedict’s election. I had been struck, in the pre-conclave fortnight, how the cardinals who met up in the evening seemed to assemble in predictable groupings of geography and language; the Americans and the Europeans all seemed to have dinners to go at night, while the Asians and Africans wandered through Rome, uninvited and lost. The chief pastor having abandoned them, they voted for the deputy.
But there was another reason for his election, which at the time I was aware of but whose significance only now, after these firestorm weeks, I have come to appreciate.
A number of people who knew Rome well – some correspondents, others curial monsignori -- told me that Cardinal Ratzinger was considered the only one capable of dealing with the sex abuse problem. He knew his way round the Curia; he knew where the bodies were buried, and where the obstacles lay.
At the time I didn’t quite grasp this. I thought “obstacle” meant bureaucratic inertia. Now, after the revelations of how Legionaries of Christ founder and serial abuser Fr Maciel Marcial suborned the Curia and was protected at the highest levels in Rome; after a week in which the mentality of a Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos has been on display; and since learning that Pope John Paul II (whose attitude to clerical sex abuse can best be described as one of denial) approved a letter by Castrillón Hoyos which directly contradicted the efforts of Cardinal Ratzinger in the CDF -- after seeing all this, I understand better what they meant by “obstacle”: a societas perfecta ideology, an ecclesiology rejected by the Second Vatican Council, a clericalism and an arrogance that are blind to victims.
My view of Pope Benedict has changed. I saw him as one of the architects of the John Paul II settlement. I now see him as a lonely reformer, and his election as providence; for it surely takes a German – or an Englishman, or an American – to destroy the clericalism which thrives where the Church is strong and the state deferential, or weak.
A Catholic charismatic friend of mine wrote to me recently to say that the crisis is “all part of God's plan. I think the Lord is breaking the wrong kind of power that there has been in some parts of the Church ... It has required something as horrendous as child abuse to break this power. Thus I believe two negatives have become a positive, which gives the Lord more room to act in the future.”
Those involved in the charismatic renewal, she went on, “are seeing, despite all the negative media reports, greater numbers at their meetings and events. There seems to be a new anointing in spiritual matters. I sense a new return to the Church. I think God is sorting out things so the Church they return to will be in the right shape for them to come back to.”
When Pope Benedict was elected I was -- as I was saying -- in a BBC tent. I had just began speaking when the interviewer put a hand to his ear and swivelled round. “And we’re getting reports that .... yes, it looks as if this could be ... it’s hard to know ... Austen Ivereigh, is this it? Is this the white smoke?”
I looked down at the stuff streaming from the chimney and frankly didn’t have a clue. “Yes,” I said, “I think it is. On the other hand, it’s hard to know for sure.” Then the roar of the crowd reached us. “I’m going to say yes,” I ventured. “Yes. We have a Pope."