The Year of Two Popes

How Joseph Ratzinger stepped into the shoes of John Paul II—and what it means for the Catholic Church
I. A Pope After Lunch
Also see:

Flashback: "The Catholic Church" (July 2002)
Atlantic articles from the past forty years have considered the troubles and the institutional weaknesses plaguing the Catholic Church.

Interview: "The Loyal Catholic" (July 2002)
Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism.

Interview: "Behind the Scenes at the Vatican" (January 10, 2006)
Paul Elie, the author of "The Year of Two Popes," talks about Ratzinger's rise and his own extraordinary experiences researching the story.

The cardinals took their seats in long rows on two sides of the Sistine Chapel, tucking their cassocks beneath them. A hymn was sung, a prayer said, an oath taken. The doors were locked. Then, with ritual solemnity, the cardinals rose one by one to cast their ballots in the first "scrutiny." Each man stepped to the front of the room, declared that he was voting for the man he believed to be God's choice as the next pope, and then dropped a paper ballot into an urn.

It was Monday, April 18, 2005. Two weeks earlier the body of John Paul II had been laid out beneath the great dome of St. Peter's Basilica, the feet (in old brown shoes) pointing straight upward in a final expression of earthly vigor. Now 115 cardinals were meeting to elect his successor—to find out which of them would be next to lie in state in St. Peter's.

Three cardinals counted the ballots. Three others checked their work. Seventy-seven votes were needed for election: two thirds plus one. In this first scrutiny perhaps fifty cardinals had cast their ballots for Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Perhaps ten had cast ballots for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit and the archbishop of Buenos Aires; nine for Carlo Maria Martini, another Jesuit and the retired archbishop of Milan; six for Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome; four for Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state; and many for scattered others. The ballots were burned in the chapel furnace; black smoke issued from a chimney visible from St. Peter's Square. The doors of the chapel were unlocked and the cardinals descended a grand staircase. A small fleet of minibuses awaited them; they clambered aboard and were taken to the Domus Santa Marta, a $20 million guesthouse a few hundred yards away. The conclave's first day was over, and Cardinal Ratzinger, for a quarter century one of John Paul's closest advisers, was something like a presumptive pope.

At the Santa Marta the cardinals ate supper in the refectory. Afterward they prayed, read, paced, or smoked, stepping outside to avoid the ban on smoking indoors, enforced even for cardinals electing a new pope. Some cardinals paid a visit to Cardinal Martini. Some visited with Cardinal Bergoglio. At least one wrote in his diary, which he would show to a reporter after the conclave. They went to sleep, rose, washed, prayed, dressed, and celebrated mass all together in the modern chapel of the Santa Marta. They ate breakfast, were dressed again in red and white, and were taken back to the Sistine Chapel, where they cast their ballots in the second scrutiny.

This time more than sixty of them voted for Ratzinger. Perhaps thirty-five voted for Bergoglio. Not one voted for Martini. In the night the votes for the one Jesuit had passed to the other, and the unassuming Bergoglio had emerged as the candidate of those who opposed the formidable Ratzinger. The cardinals voted again. In the third scrutiny Ratzinger gained votes, to seventy or more. Bergoglio also gained, climbing to perhaps forty votes. The ballots were burned. The chimney smoked black. From Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment, Jesus Christ stared down impassively, separating the saved from the damned; cleansed of soot, the scene was a good deal clearer than at the time of the previous conclave, when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope on the eighth ballot.

The cardinals left the chapel, boarded the minibuses, and were taken to the Santa Marta for lunch—all except Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, who went on foot through the lush Vatican gardens. Was Ratzinger unbeatable? No; but his hour seemed to have come.

In the refectory Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia buttonholed other cardinals, especially those from Latin America. An ardent supporter of Ratzinger, he urged them to consider the tally for Bergoglio. A vote for the Argentine was not really the vote of regional solidarity they might think, he said. Many of the votes for Bergoglio were probably coming from scandal-ridden North Americans or from Western Europeans whose flocks could fit onto the head of a pin. Coffee was served. The cardinals boarded the minibuses once more.

The chapel doors were locked for a fourth scrutiny. The cardinals strode to the front of the room one by one. This time two dozen votes went to Bergoglio. More than eighty went to Ratzinger. The prefect had been elected pope. The ballots were burned in the chapel furnace. Smoke guttered up gray and then white. The bells of St. Peter's tolled, setting off a ringing of bells across Rome. A text message—"fumata bianca"—was forwarded from one mobile phone to the next, and tens of thousands of people in the city hastened to the square to see the new pope, whoever he was.

It was just past 6:00 p.m. in Rome when Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, a Chilean, emerged on the loggia over the big central doors of St. Peter's and declared, "Habemus papam"—"We have a pope." He then pronounced a string of Latin words with a surname at the end: Ratzinger.

Several hundred commentators, watching from the square or on television monitors, began to tell a story of Ratzinger as an unlikely pope and a surprising choice—a shy scholar summoned from his study against his will to lead the world's billion or more Catholics along a path trodden dramatically by his outsize predecessor.

The new pope appeared on the loggia, freshly vested in red, white, and gold, a white skullcap on his head. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—priest, theologian, author, doctrinal supervisor, Vatican insider—was now Pope Benedict XVI, the vicar of Christ, the servant of the servants of God. He beamed and raised his arms to the sky. He looked happy, proud, nervous, awestruck—but in no way surprised.

This is the story of how Joseph Ratzinger took hold of the papacy, and of what his accession means for the Church today. It is the story of a man "inwardly seized by Christianity" (as he once wrote), seen preparing to seize the moment, putting human ambition in the service of suprahuman demands. It is a story of power and its exercise, though not in the usual pejorative sense. Ratzinger's stern stewardship of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had led the press to dub him "Ratzweiler"—and to luridly point out that the CDF was the successor to the Inquisition. But Ratzinger was at once more and less than an inquisitor. On the one hand, he was a crack theologian reduced to vetting Vatican documents; on the other, he was an intellectual with portfolio, speaking truth from power rather than to it.

Ratzinger had no need to grasp for the keys of St. Peter's. As John Paul's most trusted associate he didn't have to pull rank or trade favors to make his influence felt. Rather, he drew near to the papal office by degrees. Over a period of years he laid claim to the role of leader of the Church by making a series of strong interventions in the Vatican's internal affairs, largely out of sight of the press and the vast Catholic populace, but very much in the gaze of the people who elect popes.

Like several million other people, I was in Rome last spring, as the papacy passed from one man to another. The experience combined reportage and pilgrimage. I went into the basilica to pay my respects to John Paul, joining the swollen stream of mourners who filed past the body, forbidden by the security guards to pause, much less to pray, and so left to salute the dead pope with a click of upraised camera phones. I arranged meetings with priests and Vatican officials I'd come to know over the years. In suit and tie I watched from a seat atop Bernini's colonnade as Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated the funeral mass, delivering a deeply affecting eulogy to "our beloved pope," while the wooden coffin containing John Paul's body lay spectacularly alone beneath the Roman sky. At a bus stop I took a snapshot of a poster pasted to an old stone wall, as it had been pasted all over Rome: John Paul on his knees and gazing heavenward, and below him the word GRAZIE, "Thank you."

When he was elected, in 1978—the so-called "year of three popes"—John Paul, fifty-eight, was the youngest pope in modern history. When he died, at eighty-four, he seemed beyond age, like a biblical patriarch. In the obituaries the early photographs showing his strong jaw and straight back came as a shock; it was hard to remember that he had ever walked normally, much less skied or stood up to the Soviets. Parkinson's disease, a hip replacement, fatigue, and old age had ravaged him more profoundly than the public knew.

"They treat him as though he were already dead," it had been said of the aging Pope Paul VI, who died already out of favor among the clerics who run the Vatican. It was vastly different for John Paul. The longer he lived, the greater the reverence for him grew at the Vatican. The more he suffered, the more Christlike he was seen to be. The less capable he became of doing the routine work of the papacy, the more confident his subordinates were that he was a saint in their midst.

The events of the twelve months from the onset of John Paul's last illness up to the present—a year of two popes—complete a process that has been under way since the turn of the millennium. John Paul's poor health prompted Ratzinger, always confident of the soundness of his own approach, to speak and act more boldly than ever. John Paul's physical weakness made Ratzinger (seven years younger) seem spry and vigorous beneath his head of white hair; John Paul's thick, clotted speech made Ratzinger's gentle enunciations seem the voice of clarity. John Paul's struggle to carry on despite his ailments precluded the notion that Ratzinger's own limitations—advanced age, a divisive public image, an attraction to thoughts more than to thinkers—were drawbacks in any important sense.

Did Ratzinger want to be pope? Certainly—provided that this was what God and the other cardinals wanted of him. More and more, it seemed, he was wanted. Beginning in 2000 circumstances at the Vatican seemed to call Ratzinger to the papacy—to "convert" him or turn him around to the office, as he would put it. He saw the papacy diminished by the pope's illness, and the Church weakened by scandals. He was clearly "head and shoulders above the rest of the cardinals," one of his aides told me, "and he knew it"; he at once recognized his mastery of the mechanisms of Vatican power and trusted himself to use them properly. He did not—dared not—wait for John Paul to die; the Church was going off course again. So he prayed for guidance and then stepped in.

The deep roots of Benedict's pontificate were hard to see in the glare of media coverage surrounding the funeral and conclave. Once the foreign press left town, however, the silenzio at the Vatican slackened considerably. That is when I returned to Rome for a stay that stretched into midsummer. With the new pope meeting rabbis and mullahs, and with Vatican City's license plate SCV1 taken off John Paul's bulletproof popemobile and placed on Benedict's open-topped Mercedes-Benz, I found that people at the Vatican—cardinals and archbishops, curial officials and theologians—were eager to talk. We would meet in the sitting rooms of the curial offices along the Via della Conciliazione, the broad, sterile boulevard leading up to St. Peter's. These are neo-Baroque salons furnished with chairs like those found in the lobby of a Hilton, beneath high ceilings that make their occupants look small. I would take a seat under a stylized portrait of John Paul (sometimes Rembrandt, sometimes Norman Rockwell) and eventually a young man would rise from behind an old computer, leave the room, and return with a cardinal or a bishop. Or we would meet for lunch in a trattoria in central Rome. As the pasta turned rubbery in the midday heat, and the meal was prolonged by espresso and sweets, the distance between the Vatican and everyday Rome would seem to lengthen, until we spoke of "il Vaticano" as the different country it purports to be.

My interlocutors told me how Ratzinger deliberately took charge as John Paul faltered, and described what Ratzinger hadn't liked about John Paul's approach to the papacy. They provided the commentary that made it possible to form a clear picture of the conclave.

Four men were especially forthcoming. As is common at the Vatican, they spoke with the understanding that they would not be named. I'll give them pseudonyms.

Matthew is a scholar who has known Ratzinger for forty years, a man who balances his admiration for the new pope with the skepticism of one who has just seen a professional peer acclaimed as God's vicar on earth. Mark is a controversialist, a man in the public eye who knows the new pope well—but not as well as he knew John Paul. Luke is a monk who was called to Rome for his literary gifts; although he does not know "Benedetto" the way some of his friends do, he can quote him chapter and verse. John, trained in theology, was brought into contact with Ratzinger through curial service; he knows the new pope through firsthand observation and direct interaction.

I was a little awed to be breaking bread with people who knew the pope when—who had taken his classes, drafted his documents, carried out his directives, shaken his hand without pomp and circumstance. But such workaday relationships are where his true life is lived. Whereas John Paul seemed most at home when celebrating mass for 100,000 strangers, Benedict is most himself when among fellow churchmen in Rome. Whereas John Paul made all the world an altar, Benedict's sphere of action is the compound of churches and offices surrounding St. Peter's. As a symbol of the papacy John Paul's popemobile has been replaced by Benedict's personal theological library of several thousand books, which were photographed after his election so that they could be reshelved in the same order in the papal apartments.

In short, Mr. Outside has been succeeded by Mr. Inside; and the story of Ratzinger's emergence as the Church's leader reveals the ways in which his pontificate is likely to affect the Church as a whole. In many ways the central fact of the papacy in the modern age is the gap between the pope's growing power in the Church and his diminishing influence on the religious lives of individual believers. This gap is one that John Paul and his predecessors sought to close. Under Benedict the gap is open—wide open. He will govern more but matter less than John Paul—and will probably matter less to the lives of individual Catholics than any other pope of the past half century.

II. Co-workers in the Truth

A postcard for sale in Rome shows John Paul and Joseph Ratzinger together many years ago. John Paul is wearing the white papal vestments and an embroidered miter, Ratzinger robes of red and gold. They are facing each other in profile, their hands on each other's shoulders, John Paul's strong gaze and stony forehead opposite Ratzinger's softer features and thick white hair, their eyes locked and alight with joy. It is a friendly, even a fraternal, embrace, but the impression is somewhat misleading: the picture was taken at the mass in October of 1978 at which John Paul was "invested" as pope, and the embrace was a ritual show of fealty, performed that day by each of a hundred cardinals who stood in line to honor him.

"Friends" is how the two men are usually described, but even now the nature of the friendship is hard to pin down. It is more revealing, I think, to see them the way they saw themselves—as "co-workers in the truth," a New Testament expression that Ratzinger made his motto when he became an archbishop.

In the 1960s both men took part in the Second Vatican Council—Karol Wojtyla as a young prelate from Kraków, Ratzinger as an adviser to the archbishop of Cologne—and the Vatican II connection is the source of much of their subsequent authority. But although their contributions to Vatican II are beyond dispute—Ratzinger's to Dei Verbum, a document about the sources of revelation, and Wojtyla's to Gaudium et Spes, about the Church's approach to the modern world—they did not become acquainted during the four years of the council. According to Ratzinger, they never even met there. It was not until 1977 that the new archbishop of Munich-Freising met the archbishop of Kraków, and it was not until the two papal conclaves of 1978 that they got to know each other.

The first of those conclaves elected the Italian cardinal Albino Luciani—John Paul I—as the successor to Paul VI. Luciani died of heart failure a month later. In the second conclave Ratzinger was quick to join a coalition led by Franz König of Vienna, proposing Karol Wojtyla as the next pope.

Presented by

Paul Elie, a senior editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, among other prizes.

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