What It’s Like to Elect a New Pope

Book review of Praying in Rome


Praying in Rome

Reflections on the Conclave and Electing Pope Francis

By Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan

Random House Digital, 2013

39 pages, $1.99 (e-book)

To order: imagecatholicbooks.com


In the weeks and months following the March 2013 papal conclave, journalists and scholars alike spent much time speculating on how and why Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires became Pope Francis.

The 115 members of the College of Cardinals are sworn to secrecy on the actual discussions surrounding the election of a new pope, yet that doesn’t stop media commentators from jockeying for insider information. And while it’s certainly no tell-all account, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, provided just that — without, of course, breaking his vow of secrecy — in the e-book Praying in Rome. It is a journalistic rendering of his role in electing the current successor to St. Peter.

Praying in Rome actually begins in New York on Feb. 11, 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI shocked most of the world, including Cardinal Dolan, with his surprise announcement to abdicate the papacy. Just hours after finding out the news, Cardinal Dolan found himself in the studio of NBC’s Today show, trying to make sense of the recent news in front of millions of live viewers. During the next month, Cardinal Dolan would participate in countless interviews as he traveled to Rome to say farewell to Pope Benedict and begin preparations to elect a new pope.

While his account is light and does not overwhelm the reader with the many details of such a demanding duty, one can easily sense that the cardinal was keenly aware of just how daunting and important the task at hand was — not only for the Catholic faithful, but also for the rest of the world.

He describes in detail and fondness his final moments with Pope Benedict, his first meeting with Cardinal Bergoglio from Argentina in the days before the conclave and the general mood of his brother cardinals in Rome.

Cardinal Dolan’s Praying in Rome isn’t merely a memoir of the 2013 papal conclave. More importantly, it’s a reflection on the powerful witness of the papacy for both the Church and the world. In seeking a leader for the Church, both Cardinal Dolan and his brother cardinals were reminded of the primary job description of the pope: to remind us of Jesus Christ and to call us into communion with him.

While Vatican reform, the decline of the Church in Europe, the growth of the Church in the global south and many other topics dominated the discussion about what qualities the next pope needed to have to tend to the great tasks at hand, Cardinal Dolan places all of this as secondary. Indeed, none of these realities can be addressed without a first and prior commitment to holiness and adherence to the Gospel.

In a mere 39 pages, Praying in Rome is brief in content yet bountiful in its reminders of the essentials of the faith.

Cardinal Dolan’s sharp wit and good humor are evident on every page, but equally matched with a sincere commitment to holiness and a desire to actively discern God’s will for the Church — during the election of Pope Francis and always.

Christopher White writes from New York.