The world is about to get a new pope–should anyone care? I doubt it. We might conceivably see an American or African pope, and we’ll certainly see a younger one. But I can’t imagine we’ll get a pope who has significant doctrinal differences from Benedict. The new pope might make noises about ecumenism and inclusiveness and forgiveness and so forth, but he won’t really change anything fundamental about the Church. The folks who would make those sorts of changes aren’t in the College of Cardinals.
People will be interested in the conclave where the pope is elected, since it’s an inherently fascinating and dramatic process. I did a lot of research on conclaves for Pontiff. Here is the chapter where I describe the final vote for a new pope. The details are always changing, but what I describe here was accurate as of the time of John Paul II.
Eligo in summum pontificem…
Cardinal Antonio Riccielli stared at the Latin phrase printed at the top of the small rectangular card. I choose for Supreme Pontiff…
He took his pen and scrawled a name on the bottom of the card. He was supposed to disguise his handwriting to preserve the secrecy of the ballot, but that hardly seemed worth the effort. Everyone knew whom he supported, whom he would support to the bitter end.
He looked at the name, and then at the man, seated across from him in the Sistine Chapel. The hawk nose, the high forehead, the piercing eyes that betrayed nothing of what he was thinking. Another ballot, another chance. But the chance was slipping away—had already slipped away, many of his original supporters thought, and there seemed to be nothing they could do about it.
One maneuver was left, perhaps. If no one got a two-thirds majority in the next day, the rules allowed the cardinals to vote that election was to be by simple majority, thereby totally changing the dynamics of the conclave. Would it help Valli? It couldn’t hurt. Valli clearly wasn’t going to get the Third-World bloc, but if they could keep the Curial cardinals in line, plus the Europeans and most of the North Americans…
He could perhaps put together a majority. But that required them to make it through the next few ballots, with the cardinals weary and eager for a resolution. The conclave had lasted far too long already. They were tired of each other’s company day and night, while the world waited. And meanwhile Valli’s vote count had steadily slipped, as the cardinals cast about for other candidates who might attract sufficiently widespread support to claim the throne of Saint Peter. One after another, candidates had surfaced, only to fade without reaching the two-thirds majority, none able to receive enough support from the various blocs fighting for the soul of the Church.
On this ballot Riccielli was worried about Carpentier, the genial Canadian. The man was a moron, but he was hard to dislike, and Riccielli knew what others might be thinking: wouldn’t it be good to have someone as pope who was less, well, high-powered than they were used to? Someone who could stay away from controversy and simply make Catholics feel good about their religion again. If we can’t get our man, maybe this guy would do. And he’s old enough that we won’t have to put up with him for long. Carpentier had received an astounding twenty votes on the ballot before lunch. Was there a movement afoot? Would people suddenly decide that he was the solution to their problem?
If there was a movement, Riccielli hadn’t been asked to be a part of it. So he could only guess, and fret.
The voting was beginning. Riccielli folded his ballot and awaited his turn to approach the altar. The ceremony and rituals attached to every aspect of the conclave had inspired awe in him at first, but at this point he found them merely irritating. Couldn’t they just vote and get on with it? Nothing to be done, though. The Church lived by its rules.
He watched Carpentier walk past on his way to the altar, plump and red-faced. What was he thinking? Was his mind frothing with excitement about what might happen to him in a few minutes? Or was he utterly terrified at the prospect confronting him? Impossible to tell from the appropriately solemn look on his face. One learns that look, of course. You can be thinking about yesterday’s football match or the bottle of expensive wine chilling for tonight’s dinner, and still appear as if you are meditating about Christ’s Passion. They had all been priests far too long not to have mastered that skill.
Finally Riccielli’s turn arrived. He walked slowly down the long aisle, between the ranks of red-robed cardinals arrayed along the walls of the chapel. He undoubtedly looked every bit as solemn and prayerful as Carpentier. At the altar he knelt and held up his ballot. “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge,” he intoned, “that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” Then he stood and went up to the large chalice on the altar. He put the ballot on the paten that covered the top of the chalice, then picked up the paten and slid the ballot into the chalice, where it nestled in among the others. There, it was done, yet again. He returned to his seat, and the next cardinal went up to repeat the ritual.
Nothing to do but wait now. The infirmarii returned with the votes of the cardinals too ill to attend the session. As the last cardinals went up to the altar, Riccielli could hear the rustling in the ancient chapel, could feel the anticipation growing. Would this be the ballot when the election ended, when the new era began? Or would the black smoke rise from the chimney once more, forcing them to keep trying?
The rituals after the balloting were especially excruciating. The cardinals chosen by lot this afternoon to be the scrutineers now had to do their duty. The first scrutineer picked up the chalice and shook it to mix up the ballots. Then he brought the chalice to the table in front of the altar, where he took out the ballots and counted them to make sure that the number matched the number of elector cardinals in the conclave. When Carpentier had been scrutineer the previous morning he had miscounted, causing considerable consternation until his fellow scrutineers straightened things out. The pope should at least be able to count, Riccielli thought blackly.
After counting the ballots the three scrutineers sat at the table and began the job of tallying the votes. The first scrutineer unfolded a ballot, wrote down the name printed on it, then passed it to the second scrutineer, who did likewise. Then the third scrutineer read the name out loud. Fortunately the third scrutineer this afternoon was Cardinal Heffernan, who had given more than his share of hellraising sermons and had a loud, clear voice. “Cardinal Valli,” he announced.
Riccielli started counting mentally. It was not considered proper to keep score on paper.
It was only after fifteen or twenty votes had been announced that Riccielli realized he hadn’t been counting Gurdani’s votes, yet the African seemed to be attracting a lot of support. Riccielli looked down to where he was sitting, on Riccielli’s side of the aisle. Couldn’t tell much from his distant profile, but then, one never could tell much about Gurdani. He could scarcely remember hearing the man speak. More of a cipher than Carpentier.
“Cardinal Gurdani… ”
But surely Gurdani couldn’t be elected, Riccielli thought nervously. Everyone said so. Few connections within the Curia. His country was too small; he’d been named a cardinal only to protect him from that insane dictator who’d thrown him into prison. And he was unacceptable to the Americans—too critical of the country and its policies in Africa. There weren’t enough American cardinals to block him, obviously, but no one could ignore the power of the American Church.
Besides, Riccielli had heard his Italian was terrible. Maybe you could elect a non-Italian to be Bishop of Rome, but how could you elect someone who couldn’t even speak the language?
“Cardinal Gurdani… ”
After he called out each name, Heffernan took the ballot and pierced it with a threaded needle through the word Eligo. The stack of ballots on the thread was growing, as was the rustling and murmuring among the cardinals. Riccielli glanced over at Valli, still sitting motionless and, apparently, emotionless, his eyes on the scrutineers. Then he looked at Carpentier. Was his red face a little paler than it had been? Did he sense that his moment had slipped away? Had his short-lived movement been overtaken by yet another?
“Cardinal Gurdani… ”
Carpentier would have been all right, Riccielli realized. He would have had his photo taken with nuns and told jokes at papal audiences and said comforting things after natural disasters. He would have been called the people’s pope, or some such nonsense. He would have waffled enough on the controversial issues to give some comfort to the liberals, without having the nerve to do anything that would annoy the conservatives. And he would have left all of them alone to do their business. Perhaps they should have all backed Carpentier from the beginning. In retrospect Valli was too holy, too intellectual, too distant. Certainly too identified with the Curia. He scared people. He never had a chance.
And what of Gurdani? An unknown, and therefore by definition frightening. The black pope. They used to apply that phrase to the head of the Society of Jesus; perhaps they’d have to come up with a new, less confusing sobriquet for the Jesuit. Gurdani had an inspiring story, what with standing up to the dictator and saving people from the famine and all. And there were those rumors about his healing powers… Choosing him would make people feel good about themselves and their religion. Look how universal the Church is, how modern, how enlightened! But the pope had to be more than a symbol. He had to rule, he had to lead, he had to make hard decisions.
Riccielli glanced up at Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling, at God’s finger reaching out to give life to Adam. Were the cardinals reaching out to give life to a black pope? If so, what kind of creature were they creating?
And then the counting was finished. The first two scrutineers started adding up their totals. Cardinal Heffernan tied the ends of the thread and placed the stack of ballots into a box. Soon the right chemicals would be added—for black smoke or white, depending on the outcome; they would then be burned in the tiny stove in the corner, and in this primitive fashion the waiting world would learn the results of the ballot. When the scrutineers were done, the three revisers came over to check their work. All had to be in agreement. There could be no possibility of mistake or subterfuge, no claims of unfairness or error.
Cardinal Magee leaned over to Riccielli. “The witch doctor’s got it,” he murmured. “Quite a surprise, eh?”
“Oh, I knew it would be him all along,” Riccielli joked lamely.
Magee laughed. “You and the Holy Spirit.”
The scrutineers and revisers called up Agnello, the dean of the College of Cardinals. He conferred with them for a moment, and the chapel grew quiet. Then Agnello looked up and smiled. “Habemus papam,” he said with a smile, and the conclave erupted in cheers.
Riccielli looked across at Valli. His expression hadn’t changed.
Cardinal Agnello approached Gurdani.
* * *
Joseph Gurdani watched Agnello approach as if in a dream. Absurdly, he thought of one of his prison guards walking toward him. He had the same leaden sense of dread in his stomach. It is starting again, he would think as the guard approached. The one he was thinking of always had a smile on his face, much as the cardinal was smiling now. One of his front teeth was gold, so the prisoners called him Goldy. Goldy’s boots always gleamed, and he never went anywhere without his rifle. And whenever he approached you, you could be sure that the butt of that rifle would end up in your stomach, the dread turning into a hard ball of pain.
It is starting again.
Giuseppe Agnello was a wizened but spry old man. He seemed to have difficulty being as solemn as his role demanded. He stopped in front of Gurdani and gazed at him, his gray eyes sparkling. “Hello, Joseph,” he whispered in badly accented English, bending close.
“Ciao, Giuseppe,” Gurdani replied, speaking the same words in badly accented Italian.
Then Agnello straightened and said aloud, “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”
You can turn them down, of course. It is not like going to prison—though in fact Gurdani had had a choice then, as well. It had been an easy one for him, though not for many others. Prison or freedom. Pain or pleasure. Good or evil. So many choices through a lifetime, leading to this moment, this ultimate decision.
He had no desire for the burden they wanted to place on him. But his decisions had always been made on a simple basis: What does God want of me? If God wanted him to take the rifle butt in the stomach with a smile and a prayer for his torturer, he would do so. Sometimes, of course, it is not easy to discern God’s wishes; sometimes it is the height of pride and folly to assume you know them.
But not now, he realized. Not with the princes of the Church gazing at you, asking you to lead them. God had not brought him this far, only to see him turn into a coward.
“With deepest humility,” Gurdani said in a clear voice, “with the realization that I am the least worthy among us, but with complete trust in God’s wisdom and help, I accept.”
There was loud applause. Agnello nodded cheerily. It was the correct answer. “By what name do you wish to be called?” he asked.
His first decision, Gurdani realized. The world would interpret it however it chose. He thought of his mother. Would she have been astonished, proud, overwhelmed at this moment? No, even this would not have caused her to bend. Of course you can do it, Joseph, he could hear her say, her eyes blazing with determination. You can be better than anyone. You just have to try harder. Think of your father. Think of what he would have wanted.
His father, dead of cholera when Gurdani was only two. Nothing more than a shadow in his memory—and possibly a false one at that, woven from his mother’s stories and his own longings. Such a great man, Joseph. He loved learning. He loved Our Lord. He expected great things from you. You must not let him down.
Who, next to his mother, was more important in his life? Whom did he want more to honor?
His father, John Gurdani.
“I take the name John.”
Agnello beamed, as if this were the very name he himself would have chosen. And then he led Gurdani down to the altar. The scrutineers’ table had been removed and an ornate carved wooden chair put in its place. “Now it’s time for us to pledge our obedience to you,” Agnello explained, seating him in the chair. “I will be honored to be the first.”
The old man got down on his knees. “Your Holiness,” he began…
This won’t do, Gurdani thought. He arose from the chair and helped the cardinal to his feet. “Please, Giuseppe, there is no need,” he said.
“Not from me, perhaps,” Agnello murmured, “but from some of these fellows, you’ll want to get all the promises you can.”
Gurdani laughed and embraced him. “If they’re as bad as you suggest, no amount of promises will help,” he pointed out.
And then the other cardinals approached, one by one. Many of them Gurdani scarcely knew—just a name, a reputation. Others, like Agnello, were his friends and allies. And he knew that Agnello was right: some of the men who were greeting him and promising their loyalty and obedience were his enemies, though he could only guess who. The Curial cardinals, presumably; some of the Americans. Perhaps the defeated candidates and their backers. One in particular was important to him.
“Cardinal Valli,” he said when the man was in front of him, “you would have been a far worthier choice than I.”
Valli inclined his head. “Your Holiness is very kind.”
Valli had been the old pope’s cardinal secretary of state. He knew everyone and everything. Eminently papabile. In other times, perhaps, he would have been the natural successor to the papal throne. Now they were looking for someone new and different, apparently, and Gurdani had been the man who fit the bill. “This is a very heavy burden that has been placed on me,” he went on. “I will need your help.”
“All I have, all I am, is at your disposal,” Valli responded, with another small bow.
Gurdani reached out and shook the Italian cardinal’s hand warmly. “That is very good news,” he said. “We will talk.”
“I look forward to it, Your Holiness.”
When the new pope had finished with the cardinals, it was time to meet the world. But first he had to dress for the part.
He was escorted to the small scarlet-walled sacristy off the chapel. “This is called the Room of Tears,” Agnello said. “I can’t imagine why.”
“Perhaps one can guess,” Gurdani replied.
In it were three simple white cassocks—small, medium, and large. A tailor stood by with safety pins, ready to fit him. The small cassock would do, of course. He removed his elaborate red and white cardinal’s robes and stared down at his scrawny body. Such a frail vessel. He put on the cassock. The tailor fussed with it until he apparently deemed it sufficiently papal, and then retired. Gurdani doubted that he ever would look papal, to some at least. A small black man with grey hair and a squint. A head that habitually bent to one side, like a bird’s. A back that was no longer quite straight, due to events he did not wish to dwell on just now. To some he would look quite ridiculous, he was sure. Worse, an insult to the Church, a disgrace to the throne of Saint Peter.
Abruptly he sat down on a small bench. Was he supposed to cry now, in the Room of Tears? Well, he wouldn’t, he decided after a moment. He wasn’t worthy, but then, no one was, no one could be.
He slid from the bench and knelt stiffly on the tiled floor. He was certain that many of his predecessors had knelt here like this, praying for the strength to do the impossible. It was all you could do—ask for some of God’s strength, so that you could carry out His will.
After a while he got to his feet and left the room. Again he was escorted, this time outside, to the loggia overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, filled now with a writhing, jostling, banner-waving throng. Agnello presented him to the multitudes waiting there in the twilight, clearly delighted at the opportunity to shock them. And Gurdani could hear—no, he could feel—the gasp as people caught their first glimpse of the small black figure who was now the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
He approached the microphone and paused, waiting for silence. “I don’t speak Italian well,” he began finally. “But I promise I will learn. There is so much I need to learn. I need your help—I need the world’s help—to do this job. But most of all I need God’s help. I ask you to pray for me, and for our Holy Mother the Church. And in return I will give every ounce of my strength to this role that has been thrust upon me.”
And then he sketched a blessing in the chilly air while the crowd cheered.
Domine, non sum dignus, Gurdani thought as he gazed out at the sea of faces. Lord, I am not worthy. You just have to try harder, his mother’s voice echoed in his mind. There would be no tears. What would his father have said? He thought of Goldy—dead of AIDS, he had heard. He thought of all who had shaped him, for good or ill. And his blessing was for them, as well as for this crowd filled with the curious and the devout, and the billion Catholics whose leader he had just become.
God is in us all, he thought. The evil and the good. The torturer and the tortured. Let us come together in His spirit, to do His will.
And thus began the reign of Pope John the Twenty-Fourth.