VATICAN CITY — The cardinals, emerging from a quick conclave, after having elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires less than 24 hours after the first ballot, were surprised that the waiting world was so surprised, including well-informed journalists who did not predict that outcome.
But the cardinals knew one thing that the world outside did not know, namely that the new Pope’s age, 76, was not considered a disqualifying factor.
Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, who chose to be called Francis in honor of the founder of the Franciscans, fit the profile that emerged from the cardinals’ meetings the week before the conclave.
He was a successful diocesan bishop not enmeshed in the controversies recently surrounding the Roman Curia. To the extent that governance was a weak point of Benedict XVI’s papacy, Cardinal Bergoglio had the reputation for being decisive, even in the face of opposition and persecution from within the Church and without. His pastoral style was engaging. And his vision understood that the Church’s future required evangelization, not management of a declining status quo.
That he was from Latin America was a boost, for two reasons. The first is positive, namely that, soon, a majority of the world’s Catholics will live in Latin America. The second is negative, in that there was a great reluctance among many cardinals to choose an Italian, precisely because Italian turf wars and factions had been identified as the source of the Roman Curia’s dysfunction.
So everything was pointing toward Cardinal Bergoglio, save for his age. Once the cardinals evidently decided that age was not a disqualifying factor, the case for him was convincing, and he was elected in only five ballots.
Indeed, the case for Cardinal Bergoglio had been known for years. He was a different kind of Latin-American bishop. A reserved man of theological sophistication, he was not timid about challenging the privileged in the name of the poor and the oppressed. He famously laid aside the material comforts of his office, leaving the archbishop’s mansion empty to live in a simple apartment, cooking his own meals and taking the bus to his meetings.
Such was the widespread esteem he enjoyed that, in 2005, he was the leading alternative to Joseph Ratzinger. Indeed, he was a leading candidate to succeed John Paul for some time — it being thought that Cardinal Ratzinger, at age 78, was too old to be elected. Nothing changed in the intervening eight years, save that he grew eight years older, leading many observers to conclude that, at 76, he was too old to be elected.
Cardinal Bergoglio was not elected last time because an older man was thought acceptable; he was elected this time for the same reason.
The cardinals in 2005 were looking for a holy man who could bring necessary governance reform, and they were not concerned about his age. They chose Joseph Ratzinger at age 78. Exactly the same thing applied in 2013, and they chose Jorge Bergoglio at 76.
Why were the cardinals not as concerned about his age as previously thought? Recall that Cardinal Bergoglio himself told La Nacion before the conclave, “I have no possibility of becoming pope; this time, my age works against me.”
It may be that the Church has simply become accustomed to having an older pope. If Pope Francis serves until 2020, the Church will have had a pope over 75 years of age for 25 consecutive years. The College of Cardinals itself is rather old, with only 15% of the cardinal electors under 65. That may have been on Pope Francis’ mind when he greeted the entire college, including the over-80 non-electors, and spoke to them off-the-cuff about being elderly.
“Courage, dear brothers!” Francis told them. “Probably half of us are in our old age. Old age, they say, is the seat of wisdom. The old ones have the wisdom that they have earned from walking through life, like old Simeon and Anna at the Temple, whose wisdom allowed them to recognize Jesus. Let us give wisdom to the youth: Like good wine that improves with age, let us give the youth the wisdom of our lives.”
Clear, simple, heartfelt and full of deep humanity. In his first days, the world saw those qualities the cardinals saw in him. And those qualities, which have been tested by long years of Christian discipleship and long years as a Catholic apostle, recommended him all the more to his brother cardinals. Therefore, the Church got its first Latin-American pope, its first Jesuit pope and its first Francis.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.