Although the conclave officially began when the ornate doors of the Sistine Chapel closed Monday, the election of Pope Benedict XVI less than 24 hours later was virtually decided before the balloting began.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger arrived with a solid base of votes that staved off the emergence of any real challenger, culminating a juggernaut of a campaign months in the making, cardinals and Vatican-watchers said Wednesday.
As Ratzinger gathered momentum during the conclave, some holdouts changed their votes “for the unity of the church,” British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said. The fourth ballot resulted in victory Tuesday afternoon, a speedy outcome that seemed to awe the new pope.
“When the majority of 77 or 78 was reached, there was a gasp,” Murphy-O’Connor said. “Everyone clapped. He had his head down. He must have said a prayer. I didn’t see his face. He must have been aware this could happen, but when it does, it is a very special moment.”
After the traditional burning of ballots and the pope’s triumphant balcony appearance Tuesday, Benedict XVI invited the cardinals back to a hasty celebratory dinner. Caught off-guard, 20 nuns at the cardinals’ Vatican residence improvised a repast of soup, beans, cold cuts, ice cream and Champagne.
Ratzinger’s career had been building toward that night of pomp and joy. He accumulated clout during two decades as the chief of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog office and, more recently, as dean of the College of Cardinals. During the waning years of Pope John Paul II, he essentially ran the church. He enjoyed unique access to an increasingly infirm pontiff who helped pave his path to succeeding him.
The German cardinal drew increasing speculation as a papabile, or papal candidate, late last year. The groundswell came partly from quiet promotion by powerful conservative movements such as Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation, an organization that is strong among the Italian political and business elite.
“Ratzinger put nothing ‘on sale’ in order to be elected pope,” Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican watcher, wrote in an online column Wednesday. “The votes and consensus landed on him one after the other, month after month, scrutiny after scrutiny, attracted only by his agenda, hard as a diamond.”
A telltale sign of his ascent took place at the funeral of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation. The Mass in Milan’s Duomo cathedral on Feb. 24 drew Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other notables.
Representing the ailing pope, Ratzinger presided over the funeral Mass instead of Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Milan, against the expectations of some. Ratzinger’s homily brought enthusiastic applause. The audience responded to remarks by Tettamanzi, a rival candidate for pope, with silence.
On April 8, Ratzinger stepped into the international limelight at another funeral, that of John Paul II. His eloquent homily won praise. His dominance of subsequent assemblies of cardinals added to a sense of momentum going into the conclave.
After the 115 cardinals sequestered themselves Sunday at the hotel-like St. Martha residence, there was a lot of “walking around and talking,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said. John Paul had named all but two of the cardinals in the conclave, and all were junior to Ratzinger.
At a Mass on Monday morning, Ratzinger delivered a broadside televised around the world: a homily denouncing moral relativism and celebrating Christian identity. He spoke with the stern confidence of a candidate on the verge of victory.
“He says the homily and is applauded by the whole church,” said Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile. “There were many signs, very clear signs, that he appeared as the first choice.”
Errazuriz was one of more than a dozen cardinals who spoke to The Times on Wednesday. They provided some details about the ceremony and drama of the conclave but, because of a secrecy oath, declined to reveal vote breakdowns or name vote-getters other than the winner. Some information about those topics came from interviews and accounts of Vatican specialists who had talked to cardinals.
The conclave disproved the dictum that front-runners do not become pope. It was the first papal election subjected to the 24-hour barrage of the 21st-century media machine. The coverage may have affected some cardinals; several noted Wednesday that the press had anointed Ratzinger as the man to beat.
“The newspapers were telling us that Cardinal Ratzinger was a favorite,” said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington during a tongue-in-cheek exchange with reporters. “The Holy Spirit may even speak through the newspapers.”
The first vote took place Monday afternoon. Vatican-watchers estimated that Ratzinger came close to 50 votes. Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano and other Italian cardinals in the Curia won votes from small blocs designed to make them power-brokers, Luigi Accattoli of Corriere della Sera newspaper said.
But an anticipated struggle between moderate cardinals and the pro-Ratzinger forces never materialized. The moderates included Italians, other Europeans and Americans who went into the conclave allied with Tettamanzi and his predecessor as archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, according to several accounts.
Several cardinals said voters were swayed by Ratzinger’s intellect and a sense that his closeness to the late pope made him a logical successor.
“The cardinals knew that he was so close to John Paul, that he was John Paul’s companion and accompanied him in all his work,” said Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, who has known Ratzinger since the 1950s, when Castrillon Hoyos was living in Germany.
Cardinals described the atmosphere of the vote as more like a spiritual retreat than a political event. They recalled the wonder and solemnity of an experience played out beneath Michelangelo’s majestic fresco of the Last Judgment.
The process was stately and laborious. The prelates, in ceremonial robes, sat at 12 tables arranged in four rows, two rows on each side of the chapel. They wrote out their votes by hand. The cardinals, many elderly, rose, walked to silver, gold and bronze-plated urns, raised their ballots and swore a special oath before depositing their votes.
“You take Christ as your witness that you will pick the best man, and then you look up at the ‘Last Judgment,’ at all those people going to heaven and all those going to hell,” Errazuriz recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘At least in that hell there aren’t ferocious flames.’ And 115 people do that, one right after the other, each with a very personal awareness that he is standing alone before God.”
“It’s notable that in these circumstances, some cardinals change their votes from one ballot to the next,” he added. “It’s a matter of reflection. There were many, many hours of prayer.”
The ballots were examined by three scrutineers, who were chosen at random. Each vote was announced and all present wrote it down. With no winner Monday evening, the cardinals had a light dinner and retired early.
Ratzinger looked relaxed and in control at breakfast Tuesday morning, addressing cardinals at his table by name and in their diverse languages, said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles.
It became clear during the voting Tuesday that Ratzinger had support from every region of the world.
“He had a consensus because firstly, he is someone capable of authority and always guided by truths,” said Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Poland. “He was the dean of the College of Cardinals and he had reasons to become known.... He inspired admiration.”
Recent years had brought predictions that some cardinals would push for a precedent-making pope from Latin America, where 40% of all Roman Catholics live. But “there was a significant Latin American vote for Ratzinger from the very beginning,” said Alejandro Bermudez of Peru, the editor of Lima-based ACI Prensa.
Most of the region’s 20 cardinals were satisfied that John Paul II had placed Latin Americans in powerful bastions of a bureaucracy once dominated by Italians and saw Ratzinger as a status quo leader who would prevent an Italian resurgence, Bermudez said.
“The Latin Americans do not feel neglected,” he said. “Having a Latin American pope was simply not a priority for the Latin American cardinals themselves.”
The Latin Americans’ conquest of turf in Vatican City also meant that many had little interest in decentralization, a priority of U.S. and Central European moderates, he said.
The remnants of resistance to Ratzinger faded during the two ballots Tuesday morning. Glemp, the Polish cardinal, said the consensus resulted from patient discussion.
“Calmly, calmly, without propaganda, we talked and two-thirds thought he was the best,” Glemp said.
The shift in allegiance to Ratzinger included prominent members of the reformist camp aligned with Martini, according to several accounts. Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for the Rome daily La Repubblica, reported that Martini sealed the outcome when he acquiesced.
At midday Tuesday, “Ratzinger’s position had become so strong that it was up to the other electors -- if they did not want to give an impression of great disarray, disastrous for the church’s international image -- to take a step to give their votes to the most prestigious, and finally most unifying, candidate,” Politi wrote. “That’s what happened with the blessing of Martini.”
After the decisive ballot Tuesday afternoon, the cardinals applauded Ratzinger. Sodano, the secretary of state, then asked the ritualistic question: “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?”
“Yes, I accept,” Ratzinger responded.
Ratzinger then told Sodano he had chosen the name Benedict XVI. Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Germany said the new pope looked “a little forlorn” as he headed into the chapel’s Room of Tears, a name that refers to popes who have wept as they donned white vestments.
Meisner himself did not remain dry-eyed.
“For me it was a miracle,” he told journalists Wednesday. “I burst out crying.”
Amid the emotion and commotion, the new pope remembered that Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia turned 70 that day and took a moment to wish him a happy birthday.
“With all the things he had to think about, he had a very human touch,” Rigali said.
Ratzinger invited his former peers to join him for a “convivial” dinner at St. Martha, Murphy-O’Connor said, describing it as a light-hearted, festive gathering.
“In he comes, all dressed up,” Murphy-O’Connor said. “I often wondered what he felt, really. So anyway, we gave him a great clap. We had a very pleasant dinner with some Champagne to drink a toast. Then we tried some songs. It was very difficult when you have about a hundred languages to get one song.... And then he went to rest.”
Times staff writers Maria De Cristofaro, Larry B. Stammer, Janet Stobart and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.