An election revisited

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."

Austen Ivereigh

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jim McCrea
8 years 6 months ago
"In a storm, a steady hand at the helm is best.  Reforms can come later, if need be, when the winds have died and the sea is calm and people can think clearly again, - "
We cannot allow the sea to be calmed until and unless all of the filth, cowardice and careerism is identified and stricken from the ranks of the episcopacy.
John Raymer
8 years 6 months ago
Your column made me cry. I do hope and believe that Benedict can clean up the Church. I think he has the personal righteouness, the wisdom and the temperament to do it. I believe he was called by God and chosen for this task.

Jesus was crucified for turning over the tables and confronting the scribes and pharisees. Benedict must be prepared for that outcome and not even care.

Benedict needs our prayers - not to protect him from scandal but to give him strength to root out spritual wickedness in high places. [cf. Eph. 6:10-18]
Winifred Holloway
8 years 6 months ago
I don't think Pope Benedict is the right person to resolve this crisis.  As a practical matter, he is an elderly person.  He had limited pastoral experience.  He is a scholar and a person removed from the lives of ordinary people.  He's not the devil. Even taking John Allen's account of the Pope's ultimate realization of the scope of the abuse crisis, which I believe is plausible,  he is just an elderly man not equipped to deal with the current mess.  The Vatican rabble are not helping him.  Random cardinals making quite stupid statements to the press are just compounding the problems.  Defensiveness is the worst strategy, but it is the one currently employed by the apologists for the church hierarchy to the detriment of us all.
James Lindsay
8 years 6 months ago
I tend to agree with you, Austen, for the reasons you state. I think MSWs piece on recent episcopal announcements strengthens your argument that we have gotten the Joseph Ratzinger of the Council and the Glory of the Olive of St. Malachy - with all that implies for renewal in the Church. More will be revealed.


The latest from america

Venezuelan migrants walk across the border from Venezuela into the Brazilian city of Pacaraima. (CNS photo/Nacho Doce)
About 5,000 people leave Venezuela every day. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, at least 1.9 million Venezuelan citizens have left the country since 2015, fleeing from the economic and political crisis that the country is experiencing under President Nicolás Maduro.
Filipe DominguesOctober 22, 2018
Sexual orientation by itself is irrelevant to child sexual abuse. The risk factors include impulse control problems and substance abuse, and offenders take advantage of situations in which they are trusted.
Thomas G. PlanteOctober 22, 2018
“Jesus finds people where they are, but he never leaves them where they are.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 22, 2018
Paddy Considine in ‘The Ferryman’ (photo: Joan Marcus)
In the fallen world of “The Ferryman,” conflict and compromise poison everything.
Rob Weinert-KendtOctober 22, 2018