His Friday meetings with Ratzinger continued. So did his foreign trips. In June of 2004—the day after George W. Bush, on the campaign trail, paid a visit to the papal apartments to give him a Presidential Medal of Freedom—John Paul went to the Swiss city of Bern. He might have been visiting the post-Christian future. Though linked to the Vatican through the Swiss Guards, who stand at attention outside St. Peter's, Switzerland is now a bastion of secularism in Europe. Its most prominent Catholic is one of Rome's fiercest critics: the theologian Hans Küng, a peer of Ratzinger's at Tübingen. Commenting on the Gospel passage in which Jesus raises a child from the dead, John Paul urged Swiss Catholics to rise again, to "welcome my invitation to get back up!" But the passage served to call attention to his own weakness.
Two months later he went to Lourdes—the shrine in southern France that has become a place of pilgrimage for sick people from all over the world. If Switzerland suggested the secular future, Lourdes—a site of neo-primitive folk devotion—represented Europe's Catholic past. Beforehand Vatican officials dismissed the idea that John Paul's visit to a place devoted to faith healing and miracle cures had any special significance. But while celebrating mass at the shrine's famous stone grotto the pope struggled to breathe, and in a murmured homily he acknowledged the obvious: that he was "a sick man among the sick." After only twenty-four hours in Lourdes he returned to Rome.
The pope who had made 104 foreign trips was now largely restricted to the papal apartments: the corner bedroom, the office, the bathroom with its low tub, the library, the clunkily modern chapel.
His best times were spent with his closest friends, many of them Polish, around the big table in the dining room. The regular group included Stanislaw Rylko, of the Congregation for the Laity; Cardinal Marian Jaworski, once a fellow priest with John Paul in Poland, now the archbishop of Lviv, in Ukraine; and Edmund Szoka, once the archbishop of Detroit, who was called to Rome to run the Vatican state and was drawn into the papal circle because he speaks Polish. It had become customary for John Paul to have his Polish friends at his side during Christmas and Easter, the Church's great feast days. Now they were there all the time, and the mood was something other than festive. "It was very sad to see—his servant bending over and cutting his food for him, as for any elderly person," a Roman layman told me. He went on to recall the day when he and some colleagues from one of the Vatican's media offices climbed the stairs of the Apostolic Palace to celebrate a senior employee's retirement. As a going-away present, a reward for long service, the employee's colleagues had arranged to give her a party in the papal apartments, with the pope himself as a special guest. "He was practically lying down—it was horrible to see him slumped over among people it seemed he hardly knew," this man recalled.
A rumor emerged that at one of those meals in the papal apartments John Paul had addressed the matter of a successor. I heard an almost biblical account of a last supper with the disciples from my friend Mark, who was a regular at the pope's table over the years: John Paul summoned his Polish friends and told them that he knew he would not live long and that he could envision either of two men as his successor, making plain that he would prefer one over the other. Neither one was Joseph Ratzinger.
Meanwhile, Ratzinger's supporters had begun to pray for his candidacy—if, that is, the will of God was behind it. For ten years John Paul's death had been thought imminent. As 2004 drew to a close, these men hoped that the present state of suspension at the Vatican wouldn't last too long: the older John Paul got, the older Ratzinger got, and at some point he would simply seem too old to be elected pope. He might pass eighty and be kept out of the conclave. He might fall ill or lose his senses. He might die—for as John Paul liked to jest to friends who spoke of carrying on his legacy, "How do you know that I will die first?"
Did John Paul want a particular man to succeed him? Did he tell anybody? Asked these questions, most of the people I met at the Vatican refused even to begin to answer them. No one had anything to add to the legend of the last supper or knew what might have occurred there. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia curtly replied, "What is gratuitously asserted is gratuitously denied"—a Roman way of saying that a rumor is a rumor. But another cardinal elector, to my surprise, readily assented to the idea that John Paul had someone other than Ratzinger in mind. "I don't think Ratzinger would have been John Paul's candidate—I think he would have wanted a younger man, one who could take the Gospel to the world the way he did," he told me. Rather coldly he added, "But of course John Paul had no vote in the conclave."
Ayear ago—in January of 2005—John Paul caught the flu and took a turn for the worse, one from which there would be no return. So long anticipated, his final decline was no surprise. The surprise was in the way his last days were presented by the Vatican—not in Catholic terms but in the terminology of modern medicine and the images of media-age drama.
He was taken by ambulance to the Gemelli Polyclinic, up a hill behind St. Peter's, on the night of February 1. In the weeks that followed, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who has medical training, related the pope's health with the precision of a team doctor reporting on a sports star's condition. John Paul had been taken to the hospital because of "acute laryngeal tracheitis"—an inflammation of the larynx that made it hard for him to breathe or speak. He was receiving visitors and keeping up with Church affairs. He was back in the papal apartments, having returned in the popemobile along a route lit up by floodlights and the cameras of Italian state television, which broadcast the trip live. He was back in the hospital, this time with a flu "complicated by new episodes of acute respiratory insufficiency." This time it was serious. He could hardly breathe.
One night in late February a tracheotomy was performed. "What have they done to me?" John Paul wrote on a pad the next morning.
The same day, eulogizing the Catholic leader Luigi Giussani at the Duomo in Milan, Ratzinger evoked the plight of his ailing co-worker in Rome. "In the last period of his life, Father Giussani had to pass through the dark valley of sickness, of infirmity, of pain, of suffering," he told the congregation. "Now your dear friend Father Giussani has reached the other world … The door of the Father's house has opened."
Two weeks later John Paul was again discharged from the Gemelli Polyclinic and returned to the Vatican, this time by minivan. Again his trip was broadcast live on television. A camera mounted in the back of the van showed his view of the approach to St. Peter's Square. It was an effect at once dramatic and tactical, serving to keep the viewer's sights off the pope, who was pale and drawn.
The following Friday, Ratzinger addressed a conference held at the Vatican to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document on the Church's relations with the modern world—a document that Karol Wojtyla had helped to shape. After the council Ratzinger had announced his displeasure with it; now he met the document halfway, praising the "beauty" of its account of the Church's role in promoting earthly justice while stressing the need to render justice to God first. Was he reconciling with John Paul or correcting John Paul? Probably both.
With the pope supposedly convalescing, the Vatican held out the prospect that he would lead the rites of Holy Week, as he had every year since 1979. As Holy Week approached, though, Navarro-Valls announced that five cardinals, including Ratzinger, would stand in for him.
On Good Friday, Ratzinger delivered fourteen meditations on the suffering of Christ and the shortcomings of Christians during the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum. "Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side," he lamented, denouncing "filth" in the priesthood, lack of faith throughout the Church, and a lack of vigor in Christian opposition to worldly ideologies. John Paul watched the proceedings on a big-screen TV set up in the chapel of the papal apartments. A camera had been brought in so that he could be shown on television clutching a crucifix.
It is not uncommon for cardinals to celebrate masses in the pope's stead, but the Easter urbi et orbi address is a pope's personal message "to the city and to the world." This Easter the urbi et orbi was read out by Cardinal Sodano. Unable to appear on the loggia of St. Peter's, John Paul sought at least to greet the crowd in the square from his apartments. He was dressed in the white papal vestments, propped up in his wheeled wooden chair, and rolled to an open window marked on the outside as the pope's by a piece of crimson cloth. A sheet of paper was placed on a Plexiglas lectern. With all eyes on him—the Vatican's cameras over his shoulder, looking out; the world's cameras outside, focused in—he tried to read, and then to speak, but he could not make a sound. He put his hand to his throat, as if to say that the words were there, or to indicate where the pain was.
Three days later he tried again to address the crowd in the square. Again he was wheeled to the window. Again he could not speak. He clutched the microphone. He held his mouth shut, even when it twisted into a frown. Then he raised his right hand in a gesture that could have been a blessing, a farewell, or an involuntary spasm, an expression beyond his control.
The end was near. Edmund Szoka, the American governor of Vatican City, recalled the pope's final hours for me last July. We were in Szoka's office at the Governatorato, a large stone building set in the sculpted gardens behind St. Peter's. Several dozen framed photographs of Benedict XVI, in different shapes and sizes, were stacked in a hall, ready to replace the photographs of John Paul on the walls. Szoka, seventy-eight and nearly hairless under his cardinal's red biretta, proudly showed me a bookcase that contained the teachings and writings of John Paul—forty-plus volumes bound in red cloth—and nothing else.
"I got a call from Dziwisz in the morning, saying, 'Can you come over?'" It was Friday, April 1. John Paul had concelebrated mass at dawn and had followed a recitation of the Stations of the Cross. He lay clad in a white dressing gown, an echo of his official vestments. His closest friends were there: Dziwisz and an aide, Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki; Stanislaw Rylko; three Polish nuns; and three doctors. "I knelt and kissed his hand," Szoka said. "I said in Polish, 'I am praying for you day and night.' He was fully aware, though he could not speak. After a few moments I got up, and as a priest I am used to giving a blessing to sick people. So I gave him a blessing"—moving his right hand over the bedridden man in a sign of the cross—"and in reply he made the sign of the cross. And I thought, Who am I to give a blessing to the pope?"
John Paul had already been given the last rites, but he clung to life for a full day more. On Saturday tens of thousands of pilgrims made their way to St. Peter's Square. In the papal apartments the pope's intimates kept vigil as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Cardinal Sodano came to the bedside. John Paul's temperature spiked. As the afternoon turned into evening, the sound of the swelling crowd down in the square grew steadily louder in the papal apartments. Stanislaw Dziwisz led the others in the celebration of mass. They sang hymns in Polish and the Te Deum, the Latin hymn of thanksgiving.
And then John Paul was dead. A candle was lit and placed at the foot of the bed, according to Polish custom. The time of death was recorded as 9:37 p.m. Navarro-Valls, with a hagiographer's instincts, would put out word that the dying pope had spoken of the faithful gathering in the square: "I have looked for you. Now you have come to me, and I thank you." The pope's chief doctor would report that John Paul had "passed away slowly, with pain and suffering," unable to "utter a single word."
Joseph Ratzinger did not take part in the deathbed vigil in the papal apartments. He was not even in Rome. After making a visit to John Paul's bedside at midday Friday (it was only his second visit in the eight weeks of the pope's illness), he left the city to go to the Benedictine monastery at Subiaco, an hour's drive north of Rome, where he was to receive the Premio San Benedetto—the Saint Benedict Prize for the promotion of life and the family in Europe.
Some of the people I met in Rome were appalled that Ratzinger had left the city. "Imagine it: the pope is dying, is nearly dead, and Ratzinger goes to Subiaco to pick up a pretty insignificant prize created by the abbot to get publicity for the monastery," Robert Mickens, the Rome correspondent for The Tablet, the English Catholic weekly, said to me. Others said the excursion was in character for Ratzinger, a man who keeps his appointments. "He told them he would go, so he went," Cardinal Szoka told me. "There is nothing unusual in it. The pope was very ill, but there was no knowing that he would not live on for days or even weeks." When I pointed out that the day Ratzinger left Rome, Szoka went on television to dispel rumors that the pope was already dead, Szoka simply said he hadn't realized Ratzinger had left town that day.
In character for Ratzinger, the visit to Subiaco was also characteristic of his relationship with John Paul. He had served the pope without ceasing but not without reservation; he had maintained a certain distance, for he was not a friend or a follower of Wojtyla so much as a co-worker in the truth. John Paul's illness had prompted him to stand apart more emphatically, to work the margins of the papal office. With John Paul's death he was, in important ways, on his own. More than ever he had things to do. As dean of the cardinals he had to prepare himself, practically and spiritually, for what was next: the funeral, the meetings of the cardinals, the conclave. As a presumptive pope he had to uphold John Paul's legacy while keeping clear of the clannish folk who had encircled the dying pope. "That whole devotional aspect of the Polish mafia made him uncomfortable," my friend John told me. "He saw the cult of personality around John Paul as a big problem. And they knew it. Those Polish people knew that once John Paul was dead, it was all over for them."
As the pope lay dying, then, the prefect left town. He was driven to Subiaco in the usual car, a Mercedes sedan. A slim briefcase was on the seat beside him. He arrived, prayed vespers with the monks, and joined them in the refectory for a supper of soup, spaghetti, and Orangina. Before an audience of monks and local worthies he received the prize from the abbot. He gave a speech evoking "the city on the mountain" where Benedict of Nursia had gone on sojourn from Rome 1,500 years earlier—the place where, at a dark time for the Christian faith in Europe, he had "gathered together the forces from which a new world was formed." He likened Benedict's epoch to the present, "a time of dissipation and decadence" in which the world has lost its way. He suggested that the precepts of Benedict's monastic rule, as a distillation of Christian faith, "demonstrate also to us the path that leads to the heights, out of the crises and the ruins."
Then he climbed into the waiting car and was carried off into the darkness. This was the significance of Joseph Ratzinger's trip to Subiaco that night last April: it put him, a Roman churchman par excellence, on the road to Rome once more, placing him among the pilgrims who would set out for the city in the hours to come in order to witness the funeral of one pope and the election of another.
VI. The Nine Days
On Monday, April 4, John Paul's body was transferred from the Apostolic Palace to St. Peter's Basilica. In the two days since his death the body had been cleaned, clothed, and set out in a grand room for viewing by VIPs ranging from cardinals and heads of state to the flight crews from his foreign journeys. In those same two days the crowd of pilgrims had swollen to several million people. Now the body, strapped to a board, was carried into the crowd, as though into a mosh pit, while a double line of cardinals capped by Ratzinger and Sodano looked on—a triumph of the organized splendor for which the Church of Rome is legendary.
Four days later the body was carried into the square in a plain wooden coffin. In a silence broken only by the rotors of a surveillance helicopter the coffin was lowered onto a carpet. A clergyman placed a slim book on top and opened it to a page marked with a red ribbon. For the next two hours, as Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated the mass of Christian burial and eulogized the dead pope, the coffin sat beneath the clear Mediterranean sky, a reminder that all the pomp, and the religion that gave rise to it, was finally concerned with the fate of a human soul after death.
From atop the right colonnade, where I was seated, Ratzinger looked like a pope in the making. His thick white hair made him appear more vigorous than the men behind him, most of them gray-haired or balding. His red robes whipped this way and that as he circled the altar. Most striking of all was his speaking voice, as he began the homily by extending a greeting, in delicate Italian, to his "fratelli e sorelle"—his brothers and sisters.
"This is not the time to speak of the specific content of this rich pontificate," he said. Instead he sketched the outlines of John Paul's life in reference to Christ's exhortation to "follow me": youth, wartime, ordination, life as a bishop, and the calling to the papacy. In conclusion Ratzinger stepped out of his role as cardinal prefect and spoke as if for the whole Church and for the whole world watching. "None of us can ever forget how, in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing," he told the crowd. "We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father."
Some analysts have said that the homily got Ratzinger elected pope, by showing both the College of Cardinals and the public that the judgmental German could touch people's hearts. But it can't have won over all the skeptics, at least not right away. For one thing, it was scarcely audible to much of the crowd. For another, it was given in Italian, a language foreign to many of the people whose minds it supposedly changed: the Polish pilgrims interrupting Ratzinger to wave banners demanding sainthood for John Paul; the press, which clamored for translations; the television audience, which encountered the homily through the commentary of the Anderson Coopers of the world; and a good number of the other cardinals.
An hour later the crowd fell silent as Ratzinger approached the coffin. So personal during the homily, now he was appealingly impersonal; and as he sprinkled holy water onto the coffin with a few flicks of his right hand, it was clear that the funeral had been transformed from a requiem for a pope into the simple funeral mass offered many times a day in churches all over the world. It seemed uncommonly, authentically religious: at once grand and stark, celebratory and solemn, attentive to the invisible and yet finally oriented outward toward the lives of the people who were taking part in it. For a few moments—until the silence was broken by chants of "Viva il papa!"—John Paul was forgotten.
One evening after the funeral I went for supper with my friend Matthew, the scholar. When I arrived at the residence for priests of his order—not far from the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, the gritty street that runs through central Rome—he had just finished taping a segment for a television newsmagazine. In a spotlit library full of video gear the anchor, a woman of fifty nipped and tucked to look a decade younger, had asked my friend a series of questions. Now, with the priest out from under the lights, she read her questions into the camera again, improving her delivery—and inadvertently offering a synopsis of the questions being asked all over Rome. "What kinds of choices do the cardinals have to make?" Pause. "Is there lobbying?" Pause. "Is there politicking among the candidates?" Pause. "John Paul was criticized for being too harsh on issues like birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Do you think the cardinals will be considering such issues?" Pause. "The issue of women in the priesthood: non-negotiable?" Pause. "How important is the challenge posed by Islam?" Long pause. "I'm not asking you to tip a winner, but are there obvious favorites? Could it be a dark horse?"
That morning I had met with Cardinal Dulles at the Jesuit headquarters in the Borgo Santo Spirito, an ancient road that runs to the left of St. Peter's. Dulles is the wise man among the American cardinals. A World War II veteran who converted to Catholicism while a student at Harvard, he was trained as a Jesuit priest while his father, John Foster Dulles, was serving as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state. Born in 1918, he would have no vote in the conclave, which was restricted to cardinals younger than eighty, but he has always been a man worth listening to. He settled into a chair, hooked a cane over one arm of it, folded his long legs awkwardly, and offered a grim prognosis. "The breakdown of traditional societies and the indifference of modern people to religious faith have left us with a burden of re-evangelization," he explained. "People don't believe the Gospel because they don't know it, and they don't know it because they don't hear it. Even in the historically Catholic countries people are minimally Christian at best. Germany and the Low Countries give us no reason to be optimistic. Quebec is a desert. Ireland is very nearly lost to prosperity. Only Poland has never fallen away." What about the United States? "With our society's freedom of choice come our selfishness and competition, which are now being exported all over the world. We are not immune to the forces of secularization that are being felt in Europe. Is the Christian residue in America strong enough to resist them? I worry that it is not."
Together these two episodes suggest the outlook in Rome in the novemdiales, the nine days of mourning from the funeral to the conclave. Public expectations for the conclave and the cardinals' preparations for it could hardly have been more different. The faithful and the press wondered about the prospects for momentous change in the Church, and imagined the dramatic ways the cardinals might bring it about: the politicking and coalition-building, the off-site lunches and after-hours tête-à-têtes, the favor-trading, the nods and whispered promises. "There are enough intrigues in Rome just now to fill a Dan Brown novel," one correspondent wrote. Meanwhile, the cardinals, taking part in the daily meetings called general congregations, sat in the modern audience hall tucked behind the Palazzo Sant' Uffizio and pondered the difficult situation of the Church in the twenty-first century. One cardinal after another would claim the rostrum and offer a commentary—about evangelization, secularism, ecumenism, episcopal collegiality, or the challenge of Islam. The meetings went on and on. "It was extremely disorganized at first," a man who knows many cardinals told me. "Then Ratzinger imposed order."
As dean Ratzinger supervised the general congregations—ruled over them, some would say. He greeted each cardinal by name and addressed him in a language familiar to both of them—Italian, German, English, Spanish, or French. When some cardinals complained that the reliance on Italian as a lingua franca made things hard to follow, he had interpreters brought in. He saw to it that the cardinals who had not been heard from were invited to speak, and at the same time kept the windier cardinals from upsetting the schedule. He chatted to all and sundry during the coffee breaks—so different from the remote John Paul.
The closer Cardinal Ratzinger drew to the papacy, the more determined to oppose him certain cardinals grew. The story of the novemdiales is the story of the failure of moderates and progressives to unite in opposition. What went wrong? In the first days after the conclave his opponents in Rome laid the blame on the structure of the process. They complained that Ratzinger's role as dean, strengthened by his power as the doctrinal prefect, made him the lone voice of the Church more than was right. Moreover, they said, the protocol for the novemdiales, devised by John Paul and carried out by Ratzinger, prevented—practically forbade—an opposition from emerging. While it sounds conscientious that the cardinals spent two whole days reviewing the rules for the conclave, they said, the rules were already common knowledge, making the review of them a strategic waste of time on the part of the cardinal in charge. While it sounds fair that each of the more than 150 cardinals, including those too old to vote, was allowed to speak for seven minutes in the congregations, the brevity of each man's remarks kept any one position from gaining traction—making the congregations the Vatican equivalent of open-mike night.
Even the cardinals' sleeping arrangements were blamed for the lack of effective opposition. Many cardinals had assumed that the Domus Santa Marta—built with the next conclave in mind—would be their residence during the run-up to the conclave. But as the cardinals were settling in Rome they were told that the Santa Marta would not be opened to them until the eve of the conclave. Until then they would stay in their usual Roman lodgings: at the North American College and other national seminaries, at the houses of their religious orders, or at hotels or in palazzi. Scattered thus, the cardinals didn't have a chance to meet informally, out of sight, and put their heads together.
I asked Cardinal Szoka, the Vatican's governor, why the cardinals weren't allowed to move in earlier. He pointed out that the Santa Marta's rooms had other occupants, mainly priests on long-term stays, who needed time to clear out, and that it had to be "swept" thoroughly to make sure no electronic bugging devices were present. The procedures meant to keep the cardinals' discussions secret, then, actually kept discussions from taking place.
So did the collective romance with Carlo Maria Martini, which came to naught but led the more progressive cardinals to take their eyes off the prize. For years before the conclave reform-minded Catholics had put their hopes in Martini, the archbishop emeritus of Milan. Learned, experienced, and modern, yet an institutional man to the core; an Italian, a Jesuit, orthodox and yet open to the world outside the Church: he embodies the qualities that they envisioned in a successor to John Paul. The only problem was that Martini had received a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, inviting the prospect of another pontificate ending in slurred speech and trembling hands. As he took a scholarly post in Jerusalem, rumors circulated that he had withdrawn himself from consideration. Even so, progressives seem to have had trouble letting go of Martini and settling on a more electable man.
All these factors doubtless complicated the efforts of cardinals to come together behind a candidate other than Ratzinger. But, finally, there is no tactical reason why the "so-called liberals" (as one Roman layman bitterly calls them) weren't able to fashion a response to the Ratzinger candidacy. After all, John Paul's death had not caught them by surprise. A conclave had been in the offing since 2000, if not longer. They had at least five years to prepare the ground—as much time as their idol John XXIII had to get elected, call a council, and see it through its first session before his death, in 1963.
Because the cardinals take a vow to keep the workings of the conclave secret, and for the most part really do remain tight-lipped, there is still no definitive information about what took place inside the Sistine Chapel. But an account that would explain the lack of a real challenge to Ratzinger might go like this.
At the core of the opposition was a group of moderates and progressives that included Cardinals Hummes of São Paulo, Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Mahony of Los Angeles, Danneels of Brussels, Dias of Bombay, Napier of Durban, South Africa, and Hamao, a Japanese curialist; the Germans Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann; and as many as seven other North American cardinals. With Martini of Milan finally judged unelectable, these men settled their hopes on another, very different Jesuit: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Why Bergoglio? By all accounts he is unambitious and would not have sought the papacy openly. But his humility, together with other personal qualities, made him an attractive "bridge" candidate between progressive cardinals and moderate ones, between the Third World and the First. He is an Argentine but of Italian ancestry. As a Jesuit he is thought to be outside the grip of Rome, yet he serves as adviser to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and so is a regular presence at the Vatican. Though trained as a chemist, he is considered an excellent theologian, and he is legendary for his simple and self-denying way of life: he lives in unadorned rooms near the cathedral in Buenos Aires and takes the bus to his appointments. As an Argentine he would have considerable appeal among the progressives, who have long sought a pope from Latin America, where nearly half the world's Catholics live; yet his emphasis on piety rather than social issues would make him acceptable to the moderates.
It is unclear which cardinals might have put Bergoglio forward as the anti-Ratzinger or assembled a coalition in his support. A curial official who has known Bergoglio for many years suggested that I look to Germany.
It was not an outlandish suggestion, for Walter Kasper had long shown himself willing to challenge Rome in general and Ratzinger in particular. Like Ratzinger, Kasper is a first-rank theologian who was brought into the episcopate. In his writing, and in his work as bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and then with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, he had emerged as Ratzinger's moderate doppelgänger. He had supported a plan to allow Catholics who had remarried after a divorce to receive communion, drawing Ratzinger's censure. He had challenged Ratzinger's argument—in one of the prefect's "personal writings"—that the universal Church, represented by Rome, is "prior" to the local churches, represented by Catholic communities around the world, and the debate went on for months in the relatively open space of Catholic journals. His round figure and warm smile endeared him to the press, who mentioned him as one of the papabili, never failing to note his nickname, "Kasper the Friendly Cardinal."
With the conclave approaching, Kasper tested the limits of the silenzio, tilting at Ratzinger once more.
As Ratzinger had gone to Subiaco on the eve of John Paul's death, Kasper on the eve of the conclave went to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, half a mile from St. Peter's, the central place of worship of the Community of Sant' Egidio, a progressive Catholic movement based in Rome. Kasper's dispute with Ratzinger had gotten attention not only because it was a rare instance of two cardinals' disagreeing openly but also because it bore on the whole question of authority in the Church—which is to say, on the role of the pope. Kasper's argument for the "simultaneity" of the local Church and the universal Church was an argument for a degree of local autonomy. Ratzinger's argument for the priority of the universal Church was an argument for the priority of Rome and the pope.
Kasper took to the lectern in the ancient basilica, alongside a medieval icon of an all-seeing Christ. Alluding, it seems, both to the outpouring of enthusiasm for John Paul on the streets of Rome and to the support for Joseph Ratzinger among the cardinals, he remarked: "Just as it is forbidden to clone others, it is not possible to clone Pope John Paul II. Every pope ministers in his own way, according to the demands of his era." And then—addressing the other cardinals more than the lay people in the pews—he added pointedly: "Let's not search for someone who is too scared of doubt and secularity in the modern world."
But Cardinal Ratzinger, as dean, would have the last word. On Monday morning the College of Cardinals assembled at St. Peter's. The Domus Santa Marta had been swept for bugs and the cardinal electors had settled in. A few aides and clerical workers who would be needed in the chapel had been administered oaths of secrecy. Now, gathered under the great dome of the basilica, the cardinals listened to Ratzinger, who after two weeks of decisive action was nearly hoarse.
Ratzinger's homily is now known as the "dictatorship of relativism" speech, and with good reason. Within an eloquent and characteristic account of the gifts of faith and the sacred tasks of religious leaders he embedded a stinging denunciation of the Church's relations with the world—in which the Church, he suggested, quoting Saint Paul, is "tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery." He told the cardinals, "This description is very relevant today."
Some experts read the homily as the very opposite of a campaign speech, taking its toughness as proof that Ratzinger did not care to court popularity. Others saw it as Ratzinger's own warning to the cardinals, his way of making clear what they could expect if they elected him pope. It was certainly both these things. But it is most revealing as one more instance in which Ratzinger identified his audience and then identified himself with them, with a rhetorical skill that our age calls political. Preaching to the vast crowd at John Paul's funeral, he had spoken as if he were one of them, just another pilgrim in the square; now, preaching to the cardinals on the threshold of the conclave, he exhorted them as a band of brothers, his fellow travelers on the storm-tossed ship of faith.
The homily was met with applause, and as the cardinals made their way in procession down the center aisle of the basilica an hour later, the applause rose from the congregation again, cresting at the sight of Cardinal Ratzinger, who brought up the rear. Who was being applauded—a departing cardinal or a presumptive pope? Whatever the case, as the cardinals climbed the grand staircase to the Sistine Chapel, the applause rang out as if the conclave were ending, not beginning.
VII. The Long-distance Pope
The night of his election, posters showing Benedict emerging on the loggia were pasted to walls throughout Rome. They joined the fraying posters of John Paul that clung tenaciously to the same walls, the image of the new pope's open arms appearing alongside a kneeling, smiling John Paul. In this way it was a time of two popes. "It seems I can feel his strong hand squeezing mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and listen to his words, addressed to me especially at this moment: 'Do not be afraid!'" Benedict told the cardinals during a mass in the Sistine Chapel, and for a few days on the streets of Rome he and John Paul greeted passersby together.
That Sunday, April 24, Benedict XVI was invested as the 265th pope in a grand mass outside St. Peter's Basilica. Just enough had changed since John Paul's funeral to suggest something of a makeover in Vatican City. The new pope wore a new pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses. There were more German pilgrims than Poles in the crowd, waving flags as at a World Cup match. Jeb Bush led the U.S. delegation instead of George W. Up on the colonnade the protocol of press cards and assigned seating, thrilling three weeks earlier, now seemed routine, as if a new pope were installed every few years, not once in a quarter century. The popemobile rolled out to the strains of that most German of classics, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The homily, though, was vintage Ratzinger: as he explained two symbols of the papacy—the ring on his right hand and the woolen pallium around his neck—the beauty of his words cloaked the severity of his vision, in which humanity is drowning in alienation, "in the salt waters of suffering and death," until we are rescued by Jesus Christ and the "fishers of men" who are his disciples.
In the months since then experts have sought evidence of a secret side to the new pope: an alternative to the forbidding stereotypes, a counterpoint to the exacting world view that he has developed over a lifetime. But there have been no great surprises. Benedict has exercised the papal office with the assurance of a man who put reflections on "the primacy of Peter" at the heart of his recent theology, and who watched a pope from close range for twenty-five years.
There is no doubt that under Benedict there will be some unexpected developments in the life of the Church. Yet to hope that the papacy will bring out some hidden side of its present occupant is to look for change in the wrong place, and to misunderstand both the man and the office.
Together John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger carried out what Ratzinger declared the "authentic interpretation" of Vatican II. As a result, in Rome today all the great Catholic controversies of the past half century—about women, sexuality, politics, and authority in the Church—are considered settled, and settled in the conservatives' favor. This gives Benedict a clear set of precedents and a staff of people who share his point of view. Yet it leaves him with less to do than the popes who preceded him. It means that his influence will most likely be felt more through his character than through his power to bring about change.
That itself is the change at the Vatican worth pondering, for Benedict's character places him at some remove from his predecessors. The popes of our era—John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II—were all worldly men. Even as they stressed that the pope is not popularly elected, they sought popular acclaim, a practice culminating in John Paul's foreign trips, which took the papacy to the people. And those popes could be seen reaching out and acting in ways that were meant to affect the lives of ordinary believers directly. Pope John summoned Vatican II, which changed the forms of everyday Catholic practice: the Latin mass, the meatless Friday. Paul formed a committee of experts to reconsider the Church's ban on artificial birth control, and when he upheld the ban over their recommendation, Catholic couples felt personally cheated out of a papal blessing on their sexuality. Shortly before he was elected, Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani, defying convention, sent warm greetings to the first child conceived through in vitro fertilization. Through his travels John Paul II brought moral theology into the park, the stadium, the living room, giving his reaffirmations of traditional Catholic stands the drama and urgency of front-page news.
In short, those popes were public figures. As such, they commanded the attention not only of the faithful but of all those who are still convinced that great personages shape events more than they are shaped by them. Like Nehru, or Margaret Thatcher, or Václav Havel, they were studies in human character, exhibits in the drama Edmund Wilson called "the writing and acting of history."
Benedict is different. He works with words more than gestures, challenging the world with an uncapped pen. Although he doesn't lack charisma, it is expressed on a small stage, in his writings and his one-on-one meetings with other churchmen. He is suspicious of popularity, and indeed of strong personality, whether in a pope or in an errant theologian. And although he has a very definite vision of the Church's role in worldly affairs, his emphasis is always on the Church as church. The most consequential actions of his pontificate so far have all involved ecclesial matters: implementing a review of seminaries (which includes deterring gay seminarians); meeting formally with Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish leaders; setting in motion the process for the canonization of John Paul; and naming John Paul's secretary the archbishop of Kraków. Even his dinner with an old foe, the progressive Hans Küng, was, after all, a meeting with a priest and a theologian like himself.
Surprisingly, given his authoritarian image, Benedict has a fairly restricted conception of the papacy, especially when compared with that of the maximalist John Paul. In his personal writings he explains it through the biblical imagery of the rock. Following tradition, he sees the papal office as at once "petrus," the rock on which the Church is founded, and "skandalon," the stumbling block. To these images he adds one from Michelangelo. In Benedict's view, change in the Church is brought about by what the sculptor called ablatio, or removal—"the removal of what is not really part of the sculpture." The Church is in need not of reform but of renewal, and the pope is less an agent of change than a sculptor helping it to attain its noble form.
The new pope's critics might say that this essentially negative approach to the office will make him a scourge bent on removing signs of life from the Church. So it may be. Or it may be that he will help to purify a Church that—as the scandal of priestly sexual abuse made plain—is greatly in need of purification. In any case, his program as pope is a good deal narrower than John Paul's. The very fixity of the Vatican's doctrinal positions, together with his focus on Church matters above all, means that Benedict will play a more limited role in the life of the Catholic people than his predecessors did. The pope, for half a century as familiar as the parish priest, will once again be a fairly distant figure in Rome, a man from a far country.
No one moved to deeper faith by the charisma of John XXIII or John Paul II can help feeling this change as a loss. Yet it is a change that offers certain possibilities for the lives of ordinary believers. Great things have happened under popes who were much sterner than Benedict and lacked his intelligence and sophistication. History suggests, too, that much of what is best in the Catholic tradition has arisen in the shadow of an essentially negative papacy, and much of what is worst has occurred when popes overplayed their role. Consider Pope Pius XII, the now vilified wartime pope. It was Pius's pretensions to be a statesman, not a fisher of men, that led him to calculate about the fate of European Jews rather than telling his Church to stand up and do the right thing. At the same time, Pius's relative indifference to American society left open spaces for American Catholics to shape the Church's noble form in the United States: building schools and settling neighborhoods; furthering alliances between Church leaders and working people; establishing the Catholic Worker and other movements devoted to the least among us; tending to a flowering of Catholic literature best represented by Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor; and leaving Catholics free to find common ground with Jews, Protestants, and people of no religion at all.
At Subiaco on the eve of John Paul's death Ratzinger characterized Europe, for so long the cradle of Christianity, as essentially missionary territory, which stands in need of a new evangelization. True or not, it is an insight rich in implications for the United States, for it serves as a reminder that as far as religion is concerned, this country is part of the New World, not the old one. In the history of the Church the United States is not an imperial power but a developing country. Ours is a place where Christianity is still relatively new, and our folkways, so different from those of Europe, have long eluded easy understanding in Rome.
This puts Benedict at a certain disadvantage, especially when compared with John Paul II. Karol Wojtyla knew what it meant to be an outsider, and his visits here, for all their hortatory trappings, conveyed his relative openness to American experience—an eagerness to walk our streets, see our sights, hear our song. In contrast, Benedict, for all his learning, remains unschooled in the American experience, and one suspects that, at nearly seventy-nine years old, he is too far along to catch up on the work. The task of making sense of America will await some other pope.
In the meantime, the question of who the next pope will be has been answered emphatically. For better and for worse, there is no question who Benedict is. The clarity of his world view will turn some Catholics away from the Church altogether. But his vision of Christian faith offers a challenge to the rest of us. It reminds us that the conflict between the Church and the modern outlook is not only over this or that issue but over the root questions of religious faith—about the existence of God and the ways God might be made manifest in our lives. It reminds us that even the pope must work with the Church as it actually is, not as he'd like it to be, and that he is likely to see his boldest projects founder or fail. With those points in mind we ought to turn away from the question of what the pope believes and consider just what it is that we believe—turning 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.