Behind the Scenes at the Vatican

Paul Elie, the author of "The Year of Two Popes," talks about Ratzinger's rise and his own extraordinary experiences researching the story

During the two weeks following the death of Pope John Paul II last April, the news media buzzed with the names of possible successors. Many speculated that a cardinal from Latin America might be a likely choice—or perhaps a candidate from Africa. Stories about the political machinations at work inside the conclave abounded. To some, who keep a close watch on the Vatican, however, it came as little surprise when, on April 19, a Chilean cardinal announced from a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square that the German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would be the 265th pope.

The election of Ratzinger—a man who had been appointed by John Paul to head the Congregation of the Doctrine of the faith almost twenty-five years earlier—was greeted with mixed emotions the world over. While many conservative Catholics applauded the election, progressive Catholics and non-Catholics alike voiced concern that Ratzinger's record of opposition on such issues as abortion, liberation theology, homosexuality, and female clergy would prevent the Church from keeping pace with the times. Some commentators also expressed wonder at how a figure so notorious for his rigidity (his nicknames, after all, include "Cardinal 'No'" and "The Inquisitor") had managed to seize control of the Apostolic Palace.

Once the news of Ratzinger's selection had settled in, the chatter subsided, and the media, who had flocked to Rome in droves, cleared out.

But not Paul Elie.

Like many other reporters, Elie, a writer and a senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had hastened to Rome upon the news of John Paul's death. But unlike most others, he stayed on for several months, speaking at length with cardinals and curial officials at the Vatican about John Paul and Ratzinger. Owing in part to his reputation as a prominent American writer on Catholic issues, these Vatican insiders—many of whom had known or been acquainted with both John Paul and Ratzinger for years—opened up to him, sharing their personal stories.

The considerable stretch of time Elie was able to devote to his research, and the remarkable access he was given to those in the know enabled him to write "The Year of Two Popes"—an in-depth piece of reporting that offers insight into everything from Ratzinger's character, to his ascent within the Church, to the import of his papacy. The article appears as the Atlantic's cover story for the January/February issue. Elie spoke with me about it by telephone on November 22 and 30.

Elie's work has appeared in a number of publications including Commonweal, The New Republic, and The New York Times. His book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), a group portrait of Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, was the recipient of a PEN/Martha Albrand Prize, the Beliefnet Book of the Year award, and a Catholic Press Association award. His previous piece for The Atlantic, "In Search of a Pope," was published in September 2004.

Ramsey Prather

You've written extensively about the Catholic Church and associated issues. What is it about this topic that draws you?

My own life as a Catholic was shaped in many ways by good writing. To some extent, that's the story of my book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a group portrait of four great Catholic writers, and that's what makes me try to deepen my experience of religious faith by writing about it. But my two articles for The Atlantic so far—this one, and an article from 2004 about the habits of thinking the cardinals would take into the conclave—come out of the fact that I had some experience of bishops when I was growing up. My father was a seminarian, training to be a priest in the late 1950s. His uncle, Robert Joyce, was the Catholic bishop of Vermont from the '50s through the '70s, and from time to time Bishop Joyce would come say Mass at our parish in upstate New York and then have Sunday dinner with us. My father took my brother and me to the installation ceremonies of two bishops who were friends of his in the seminary—Bishop Hubbard of Albany and Bishop Clark of Rochester, New York. So, due to my upbringing, I had some familiarity with bishops and respect for them, but also an awareness that a bishop is a man who is probably somebody's uncle and sometimes has Sunday dinner with relatives.

My grand-uncle was in Rome for months at a time during the '60s to take part in the Second Vatican Council, and it gave me a lot of pleasure, as I was going around Rome before the conclave, to know that he had been to these places and had done these things.

How is it that you were able to get such a full picture of what took place both before and after the conclave, given that you were just one of many thousands of journalists in Rome trying to cover the story?

I had a few advantages. The main one is the amount of time I was given to write the article. The Catholic Church moves slowly. Events at the Vatican unfold over months and years. But many journalists had to deliver stories on tight deadlines. I was free to look and listen and to follow other people's reports as they came out. After two short trips to Rome—one just after John Paul's death, the other just after Benedict's election—I had the good fortune of being able to return to Rome in June, with my family, and stay until the end of July. I was there for five or six weeks straight at a time when most journalists had already handed in their work—much of it very, very well informed, given the constraints they were under—and moved on. As far as I was concerned, the full story was just beginning to come out.

The main point I've tried to make with the article is that the passing of the papacy from one man to another has taken place over the past five years, and that Ratzinger, stepping in as John Paul faltered, was fully aware that doing so might turn him into a pope in the making. John Paul's pontificate lasted twenty-six years. Ratzinger was in Rome for twenty-two of them. After the conclave, one of the cardinal electors and I were talking about how surprised everybody was that Ratzinger got so good at being pope so soon. And this cardinal said, "Well, what do they expect? Of course, he's ripe. He's overripe! He's seventy-eight years old! If he's not ready now—when?"

The scope of this article is remarkable in that you were able to get key cardinals and curial officials at the Vatican to share their insights with you. How did you get such direct access to these people?

They were very gracious, and spent a lot of time with me for a number of reasons. Probably the most significant one is that, because of my book and my other work having to do with matters of faith, they know that I "speak Catholic," you might say. One cardinal told me that the 2004 Atlantic article, "In Search of a Pope," was being passed from one cardinal to another in the time before the conclave. This meant that not only did those cardinals agree to spend time with me, but we could quickly get down to business. Respect, intelligence, and a fluency in the Church's language and way of thinking are as important to people at the Vatican as are considerations like left or right, conservative or liberal. So the fact that I speak Catholic meant that they were willing to open up to me more than they might have otherwise.

Because I wasn't working against a tight deadline, I was also able to sit down with certain people at the Vatican half a dozen times. Not only can you get to a level of depth that you can't get to in a single conversation,but there's a pleasure in it which lets people open up. Most of the people I met with in Rome are priests posted there from other countries, which means they don't have families nearby and live fairly ritualized lives in very old buildings. A meal out at the right place can be a time-out for them, a respite from the unending protocol of Vatican City.

So were people at the Vatican unwilling to open up to journalists with less fluency in the Catholic Church?

I can't say for sure what other writers heard, but it's hard to imagine many serious, searching conversations taking place in the days between John Paul's death and the conclave. You should have seen some of the press events—they were like the ambush interviews parodied in old movies, with men in fedoras shouting questions to "Yer Eminence, Yer Eminence." In particular I remember a quadruple press conference held at the North American College, a big campus for American seminarians at the top of the Janiculum Hill. Dozens of reporters trudged up the hill, and the TV trucks drove up the hill with their satellite dishes at the ready. On the front steps of the seminary, smoking cigarettes, were three or four women who were obviously the on-camera personalities for local news programs in the States—they had the makeup and the clothes and the good shoes, but they were all worn out, because they'd been up twenty hours straight doing live segments for both the evening newscasts and the morning shows back in America and also attending the press events during the daytime in Rome. Well, at some point, we all went inside, our credentials flapping around our necks, and then split up: there was a press conference with Cardinal Egan of New York in the lobby, a second press conference with Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia going on more or less simultaneously in the courtyard, and a few feet away from Rigali, Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C. was conducting interviews on a bench, with reporters waiting in line for the chance to pose a question or two. In a situation like that—and I'm not faulting the cardinals, because there must have been 500 members of the press there—simple questions get simple answers, and the same answer goes into several dozen stories in different papers. I got to do something different, I'm happy to say.

What surprised you most in your reporting and your discussions with people at the Vatican?

I was surprised again and again to find the Vatican less centralized than it's thought to be. It's usually depicted as a place of militant efficiency staffed by men who walk in lockstep and take their cues from headquarters. There is something to that, but many of those men are absorbed in their work and don't know more than you or I do about the work being done across the street. It is a little village, but one where some people see each other only rarely.

The best example of this—and the thing that amazed me most—didn't come from my conversations. It came from an interview Pope Benedict gave on Polish television, in which he said that he had visited John Paul only twice during the eight weeks of his last illness—once at the Gemelli hospital and once at the papal apartments. To me, that is astonishing. The papal apartments are a hundred yards away from Ratzinger's apartment. You'd go see a sick relative or friend who lived on the next block every week or so, wouldn't you? It would be easy to see this as evidence of Ratzinger's coldness. In any case, it seems to me a sign of how far along the road to the papacy he was—how consumed he was with the affairs of the Church and the extent to which he had already become the Church's day-to-day leader.

In "In Search of a Pope" you touched on Ratzinger as just one of many potential successors to John Paul. By the time the conclave took place, did you have a sense that Ratzinger was the likely choice, or did the announcement take you by surprise?

It sounds like Monday-morning quarterbacking, but I wasn't surprised by it—and I hinted at Ratzinger's prospects in the earlier piece by suggesting that the question of the conclave would be whether the Italian cardinals or the Germans would prevail.

For people who follow these things, there was plenty to suggest that Ratzinger would be elected, and there were many articles in several languages hinting at those prospects. As I put it in the new article, the experience of seeing Ratzinger celebrate the funeral for John Paul first-hand—as I did, from a seat in the press area overlooking St. Peter's Square—made him seem like a pope in the making. Why? It's hard to say. A lot of credit has been given to his homily. But as I point out, the homily was delivered in Italian, and most people didn't comprehend it in that language. His delivery was not especially charismatic, either. I think his stature that day had to do with the presence of his whole person, out of the shadow of John Paul for the first time in decades. The effect of seeing Ratzinger deliver the homily and celebrate the mass—he was the principal celebrant—was to feel that this person was not a stand-in for a larger figure. From time to time John Paul would have others celebrate big feast-day masses in his stead, and those men always seemed like stand-ins for the pope, whereas Ratzinger did not. In the article, I point out that his appearance, his seriousness, his eloquence, and the sense of drama he brought to the liturgy in his quiet way all seemed to make him seem big enough for the job.

It seems to me that the volume of analysis and commentary about who the next pope might be—even when nothing had happened yet and there was very little to say—led many people in the media to give Ratzinger less than his due before the conclave. I know that's counterintuitive. Let me explain. Because the media already knew Ratzinger well, the prospects of other, lesser-known cardinals, from Brazil or Nigeria or wherever, made for better copy. And because they'd "flooded the zone" with reporters and had arranged for massive coverage, they naturally kept clear of the idea that Ratzinger was already a presumptive pope. To say that would have been bad for business—it would have ruined the Survivor-like suspense of their coverage. Even hard-core conservatives who relished the thought of a Ratzinger pontificate didn't want to say so—it would seem to run against the belief that the pope is chosen by God, working through the conclave.

What type of reputation did Ratzinger have in the Catholic world, and particularly inside the Vatican, before becoming pope?

Ratzinger has a kind of double persona, and in some ways that tension between his two sides, or between his character and his public image, informs the article. He was notorious among the educated Catholic populace in countries like the United States—not that they understood him thoroughly or knew what he was about altogether. His role as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith meant that he was at the center of a lot of controversies involving the imposition of Church authority, which means the correcting—or in some cases silencing—of so-called "dissenting theologians," and the insistence on core Christian doctrines in contexts which might have seemed ambiguous. So Ratzinger's role, his boldness, and to a certain extent his appearance and his name, led the press to seize on him as the heavy, the bad cop that they could associate with the good cop John Paul. They dubbed him "Ratzweiler" and "the Inquisitor." In some ways he became a symbol to progressive Catholics of everything that was wrong with the Church as it was being run in Rome.

But inside the Church, which is to say closer to Rome, there's a much more nuanced and sympathetic view of him. Certainly there are people who dislike him. It's a large church and there are lots of ways to be Catholic within it. But he is known as the most learned of cardinals, as a person with good manners, with delicacy, a person who was tireless in his work in support of John Paul and Christian truths—a person who shouldered an enormous burden of work and did it unstintingly for over twenty years. So there's a kind of attraction/repulsion to Ratzinger among individual Catholics and in the Church as a whole.

Around the time of the conclave there was a lot of speculation in the press about Ratzinger being elected pope mainly because he was older and would probably not have a very long pontificate. There was also some talk about his being elected so that he could, in a sense, "complete" John Paul's pontificate. Do you think there's much to these assertions?

There's a lot to the latter suggestion. I think that in retrospect this will be seen as an age of two popes. The title of the article is meant to suggest that, and Benedict himself has made clear that he wants to consolidate the things John Paul did more than he wants to set off in a new direction. So it seems to me likely that the time from John Paul's election up through Benedict's pontificate will be seen as a single era, with Benedict's time in office as an epilogue or postlude to John Paul's.

But did they elect him because they wanted a short pontificate? I don't think so. For one thing, Benedict could live to be a hundred—which would be the year 2027. My grand-uncle Bishop Joyce lived to ninety-four. For another, I think that the press in general values those sorts of thumbnail-biography considerations far too much. In the 2004 article I argued that the cardinal electors were going to choose the cardinal who they thought was the stand-out among them, leaving aside lesser concerns of how many languages he speaks, or how old he is. It happened that Ratzinger was on the older end of electable cardinals. But I suspect that his age was just not very important to them, compared to their sense of who he is and what his vision for the Church is.

What impact do you think Ratzinger's work as pope will have on the faith of everyday Catholics around the world—and on their conception of the Church?

To be honest, I don't think it will have much of an effect. As a person, John Paul had a greater effect on ordinary people's lives than many popes did. But in many ways his efforts as a world figure were meant to close the gap that has opened between the church and ordinary believers—to reach people through force of character because they aren't being reached in the traditional ways, such as the sacraments or the catechism or Catholic education. But now, when people have gotten used to getting the message from the pope directly, suddenly we have a pope who's much more a Vatican insider and is less prone to bridging the gap between the Church and the individual. I don't like to speak of a typical believer, but the characteristic Catholic in the United States will probably go about his or her religious life with relatively little reference to the Apostolic Palace. That's not necessarily a bad thing. My own view is that for whatever reason, John Paul took up more space in our religious lives than was right. We all devoted a lot of energy to figuring out what he thought and believed and maybe not enough to what we think and what we believe.

In the last lines of the article you write that now that a new pope has been chosen, Catholics should be able to "turn our attention away from Rome at long last and back to the world in which the real religious dramas of our time are taking place." Does that imply that your view of Ratzinger as pope is an optimistic one?

I wouldn't use the word "optimistic." I wouldn't use the word "pessimistic," either. Both words suggest that the real questions for Catholics are about the state of the Church, about what the Church should look like, when it seems to me that the real questions are about what it means to exist on this earth as members of the human race and what we ought to do with our lives. With the conclave behind us at last, we can see how much attention we've all given over the past ten years or more to the question of who the next pope would be and what he might do—how he might change the church, that is. Now, not only do we know who the next pope is, but we know profoundly who he is, because he has explained what he's about exhaustively in many books and speeches. So instead of waiting for the mysterious turn of the new pope, we can finally, in a sense, turn away from Rome and resume living our religious lives—get on with the business of figuring out our own particular callings.