'The most brilliant'


The cardinals' choice was bold — and sound

Sunday, April 17

Pope Benedict XVI

The pause is over — the week between the papal funeral and the opening of the conclave has come to an end. The cardinals have been busy: morning congregations, followed by extended Roman lunches and dinners as they get reacquainted and size up potential candidates. For others it has been a time of waiting, and one that brings to mind some of my favourite lines about Rome, written by Evelyn Waugh, the English novelist and Catholic curmudgeon.

In his historical novel, Helena, he creates a marvellous conversation between Constantine, the Roman emperor, and his mother, whom we know as St. Helena. Constantine is fretting about Rome, and already planning to move east to establish his eponymous capital on the Bosporus. "I hate Rome," he says. "I think it's a perfectly beastly place. It has never agreed with me. Even after my battle at the Milvian Bridge when everything was flags and flowers and hallelujahs and I was the Saviour — even then I didn't feel quite at ease. Give me the East where a man can feel unique. Here you are just one figure in an endless historical pageant. The City is waiting for you to move on."

The Eternal City has time to wait. It waits, and everybody moves on — even emperors and popes. Already the "Grazie Giovanni Paolo" and "Rome Cries for her Pope" posters are coming down. The enormity of John Paul II's funeral 10 days ago has been absorbed by the City and added to its almost three millennia of history. The City waits now for her new bishop.

Monday, April 18

Today the conclave opens. The Italian newspapers have been reporting all week that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is the leading candidate. As dean of the College of Cardinals, he preaches the homily, which has been highly anticipated. He delivers a tour d'horizon of the challenges facing the Church, and condemns the "dictatorship of relativism" that characterizes Christian believers as dangerous fundamentalists.

I am asked on television whether it was a stump speech. I say it was simply Ratzinger in full — a reminder of who he is and what he stands for. A friend from home emails to say that there are two kinds of stump speeches: one that seeks to persuade swing voters, and another that seeks to fire up the base. This was the latter. There is some truth in that. But the "base" here is better understood as the "foundation." For almost 24 years, Ratzinger had been charged with defending the faith against errors and confusion. The foundation is under attack from all sides, he says, and it is the task of the Church's pastors to ensure that it remains solid.

In the afternoon, the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel in a magnificent ceremony, televised live for the first time. Watching it, I spot a friend, Father Bartholomew Smith, secretary to the frail William Cardinal Baum, assisting him to his place. (Later, I call him to say how proud I was to see him in the procession, even though all he was doing was walking. "Yes," he laughs. "But I was walking in some pretty cool places.")

The cardinals vote for the first time that evening — casting their ballots as Michelangelo's The Last Judgement looms over them. As they vote, each swears an oath: "I call Christ the Lord as my witness, who will also be my judge, that my vote is given to who, in the eyes of God, I judge should be elected." One cardinal had been widely quoted as saying he was concerned about how he might justify the eventual choice to his people. The conclave doubtless reminded him that if he could explain it to Christ Jesus the Judge, he would have no problem at home.

That evening I was at Fox News, sitting with Chris Wallace as we waited for the first smoke from the Sistine Chapel. It finally came — black — but I left with a new appreciation for the challenges faced by TV anchors. Wallace did an hour of TV waiting for the stovepipe to belch smoke, and the ability to talk for an hour about a pipe is impressive.

Tuesday, April 19

I expect the conclave's second day to be momentous. I am not sure whether Cardinal Ratzinger will, in fact, be elected. But if it is Ratzinger, it will be today.

The smoke at noon is black. The second smoke, after the fourth and fifth ballots, is expected at around 7 p.m. Two hours before, I go to one of my favourite churches in Rome, the Chiesa Nuova (New Church, which it was 400 years ago!) to offer Mass at the altar over the tomb of St. Philip Neri — a 16th-century giant of the Counter-Reformation in Rome and a counsellor to the popes of his day. I ask St. Philip's intercession that a worthy bishop be chosen for his city and that, whoever he might be, he will profit from St. Philip's celestial counsel.

Arriving at the studio at 6 p.m., I am told that the smoke has just come, but observers are not sure if it is white or black. I know it must be white: the early smoke means that a fifth ballot was not necessary. Soon the bells of St. Peter's ring, and the streets fill with people running to St. Peter's Square. I wish to be with them, but I have to remain with the other commentators on standby, watching the events unfold on TV.

The choice has to be Ratzinger, I know, because he is the only one who could have been elected so quickly. But I am surprised — I doubted whether the cardinals would be bold enough to choose the one man most despised by the secular elites. We wait for almost an hour before the announcement. It is the German cardinal, and he has taken the name Benedict XVI, invoking the heavenly patronage of the great saint who sought a refuge from the decadence and dislocation that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, founding along the way the monasteries that would save European civilization.

I have read the new Pope's books, I have heard his homilies, and I have been in his quiet and humble presence on a few occasions. Whatever else the cardinals may have had in mind, they have chosen the most brilliant one of their number for the Throne of Peter. And, no less important, one of the holiest. It is a moment of gratitude and wonder. I realize, working out the timeline, that I was likely at the altar offering Mass in the very hour of the election. Grace abounds.

The night wears on, with much distraction. I run across John Paul's biographer, George Weigel, a good friend. He has more television to do, and I a column to write. But this moment is meant to be shared, so we head to his temporary apartment for a quick bite. First we recite vespers, the evening prayer of the Church. The liturgy for Tuesday of the fourth week of Easter happens to include a prayer for the pope, by name. George inserts the name Benedict. Habemus Papam indeed. We have a pope.

On the way back to my hotel, people call out good wishes and congratulations. A few, having heard that this is a "controversial choice," ask if I am "contento." Molto contento, I reply. I drop by my favourite restaurant for a few minutes. It's a simple family-run place at the end of a nondescript street a few blocks from the Vatican. I congratulate Armando, the proprietor, on the fact that one of his clients has been elevated to the papacy. I ask whether anyone ever took a photo of Cardinal Ratzinger in the restaurant. No, his daughter replies — he was too shy.

The papacy is a crushing human burden. Benedict XVI will be photographed hundreds of times every day for the rest of his life. And he will never again enjoy a simple plate of pasta at Armando's.

Wednesday, April 20

The day is, from a media point of view, remarkable. Balanced reporting, let alone good manners, have been abandoned in an eruption of vitriol. The first Reuters story quotes only those upset with the election, characterizing the choice as a "catastrophe" and "very sad." According to one quote, Benedict is a man who has "venomous hatred for gay people." It is so bad that the author — a friendly colleague from the Vatican press corps — later privately apologizes.

The elite media is, as the British would say, gobsmacked (their media have been the worst by far, flinging around Nazi associations). They are astounded that the cardinals would elect a man most famous for defending Catholic doctrine. Maureen Dowd, who in her column for the New York Times is somewhat of a guardian of secular liberal orthodoxy, declares with disgust that the "cafeteria is officially closed." The reference is to so-called "cafeteria Catholics" like herself, who pick and choose which doctrines they will believe and which they reject. It seems beyond the capability of the media horde to understand that the cardinals of the Church think the cafeteria should never have been opened in the first place.

I attend the press conference given by the three Canadian cardinals in the conclave, who point out that a pope is the servant, not the master, of Catholic truth. But the premise of almost all the questions is that an insistence on truth will surely alienate many. I mention to one reporter that, given the situation of many mainline Protestant denominations in Canada, it seems that doctrinal innovations, and not an insistence on orthodoxy, lead to divisions. I was unconvincing.

Later, I go to St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate Mass, and end up at the altar under which St. Pius X is buried. It is between the funerary monuments of Pope Benedict XV, the last pope to take that name, and Blessed John XXIII. I offer there, on his first full day as Pope, a Mass for Benedict XVI.

The continuity of the papacy is tangible, though that corner of St. Peter's only touches the most recent five per cent of the Church's life. Popes come and go, and the Church remains. But in the comings and goings, in the saints and sinners who have passed through the City, there is high drama, and to be part of it is a blessing. On the streets one can touch the history that was such a burden to Constantine. And one can be touched here by grace, the divine gift that renders the weight of history, of the media, of the papacy, into a burden that is light. Perhaps that is why, despite everything, Benedict XVI was smiling on the balcony yesterday.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "'The most brilliant'." Macleans Magazine, (Canada) 26 April, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of Fr. Raymond J. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is currently assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes parish as a curate, and as a chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here.

Copyright © 2005 Fr. Raymond J. de Souza

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.