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  • John Thavis

An Argentine cardinal who’s quietly drawing attention – again

As we approach the start of Conclave 2013, it’s instructive to take a look back on Conclave 2005 – especially given the possibility that a protagonist of that election could return as a papabile this time around.

The vote tallies in the 2005 conclave were leaked five months later in an anonymous cardinal’s diary, which formed the basis of an article published by the Italian journal Limes. The author, Lucio Brunelli, is a respected journalist who has covered the Vatican for decades, so his account – which has since been supported by others – deserves attention.

According to the diary, Cardinal Ratzinger led off the first ballot by obtaining 47 votes. Behind him were Argentine Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio with 10 votes, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan with 9 votes and a handful of other candidates with lower numbers.

Cardinal Bergoglio’s showing on the first ballot was a real surprise, and the next day his tally climbed to 35, compared to 65 for Cardinal Ratzinger. The third vote brought Cardinal Ratzinger to 72 (five shy of the needed two-thirds majority) and Cardinal Bergoglio to 40.

The cardinals took their lunch break at this crucial point. It was clear that the next vote would either see the election of Cardinal Ratzinger or, if his support had peaked, mark a move toward another candidate – perhaps Cardinal Bergoglio.

According to anonymous sources later cited by Italian journalists, Cardinal Bergoglio let it be known – more in gestures than in words – that he was not ready to accept the office of the papacy. They say this is one reason some of his early supporters voted for Cardinal Ratzinger on the fourth and final ballot that elected him Pope Benedict XVI.

Others are adamant that Bergoglio never “refused” the possibility of election, and say he was simply humbled by the idea of becoming pope.

Why is this important today?

Because in the last few days, some serious voices have mentioned Cardinal Bergoglio as a contender in the coming conclave. Not simply because he came in second the last time around, but because he impressed cardinals when he took the floor in the pre-conclave meetings that began last week.

His words left the impression that even at age 76, Bergoglio had the energy and the inclination to do some house-cleaning in the Roman Curia.

Bergoglio, the son of an Italian railway worker, joined the Jesuit order at the age of 21. As a pastor in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, he has built a reputation as a conservative on doctrinal issues and a progressive on social justice. He once said the church has to preach Gospel simplicity and Gospel certainty, and his own lifestyle seems to witness that message (he lives in a simple apartment and takes public transportation, for example.)

This conclave has multiple contenders but no real front-runner, and it’s quite possible that if early voting produces a stall, the College of Cardinals could once again turn to Cardinal Bergoglio as someone who would bring key changes but without an extra-long reign.

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