The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine cardinal who instantly became the Catholic Church's new symbol of solidarity with the poor, was the right decision for a church searching for renewal, say two Canadian cardinals who were in the voting conclave.
Oaths of secrecy prevented cardinals Jean-Claude Turcotte, archbishop emeritus of Montreal, and Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, from saying whom they voted for. But each was highly complimentary of the new Pope Francis, a hint that they may have backed the man who became the first Latin American pope and the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years.
"I'm very happy about the election of Bergoglio," Cardinal Turcotte said at a media event in Rome Thursday sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. "I have a lot of respect for this man of simplicity."
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who was considered one of the top four or five candidates before the conclave, was not at the event. Cardinal Turcotte said he believed that Cardinal Ouellet was not disappointed by his failure to get elected. "On the contrary, I think he's relieved," he said.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail after the media event, Cardinal Turcotte said the church needs to be closer to the poor and he believes the new Pope, who is a Jesuit, the religious order best known for its schools and helping the poor, will take the church in that direction. "It's impossible to live in a world where the rich are [a] few people and the poor are the majority," he said.
When he was cardinal, Pope Francis railed against the Argentine government for failing to take action to stop the spread of poverty. In 2009, when Nestor Kirchner was Argentina's president, he went after the government, saying that "human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures."
Cardinal Collins said Cardinal Bergoglio was the right candidate because "he gives a vision of a very simple, down-to-earth shepherd of souls."
Pope Benedict, who abdicated on Feb. 28, was an orthodox intellectual who excelled as a teacher – he was known for his encyclicals, including one written in 2009 about the financial crisis. But he was also considered a Eurocentric pope who did not pay enough attention to the church beyond Europe, in spite of its enormous size and growth in some regions, such as Africa. Nor was he considered a pope who connected well with the poor in those regions.
In his first hours on the job, Pope Francis reinforced his image as a humble man of the people. He shunned papal limousines, dressed simply and surprised Vatican staff by insisting on stopping at the clerical hotel in central Rome Thursday morning to pay the bill for his modest room.
Cardinal Bergoglio was a dark-horse candidate whose election surprised the Catholic world. He ranked low on the "buzz meter" even though he reportedly came second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, in the 2005 conclave. He stayed out of the media glare because of his shyness.
The ultra-quick conclave – five ballots over one and a half days, starting Tuesday afternoon – suggests that Cardinal Bergoglio had strong support from the onset, in spite of the rumours that the Milan archbishop, Angelo Scola, was the early favourite.
"If at the fifth vote the pope is elected, that means something," Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn told the National Catholic Reporter the day after the conclave ended. "That means great unity, great agreement and a real move to the one we believe is the chosen one."
Among Vatican watchers and some cardinals, there are high hopes that Pope Francis will be able to reform the church to make it attractive and exciting and overhaul the scandal-prone Roman Curia, the Vatican's administrative arm. The Curia has been besieged by the "Vatileaks" scandal and problems at the Vatican bank, which did not meet anti-money-laundering standards, among other embarrassing cases.
As a Vatican outsider, Pope Francis has no loyalty to the Curia and may be willing to shake it up. The first signal of his intentions will come when he picks his secretary of state, who would oversee the Curia. If the secretary is a tough-minded outsider, the Curia may see dramatic changes.
"Obviously we have problems [with the Curia]," Cardinal Collins said. "So one of the responsibilities of the Pope … is to ensure that it works well in an open, transparent and faithful and efficient way. … I presume one of his tasks will be to set up some things to deal with that."