Ten years ago today, on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 13, 2013, the 115 cardinal-electors of the Catholic Church walked up one after the other to a table in the Sistine Chapel to deposit folded ballot papers, only an inch wide, in a silver urn. Each bore the name of the cardinal they wanted to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who had stunned them by his resignation just over a month earlier. It was an anonymous vote, of course, but just to make sure, the cardinals had been instructed to disguise their handwriting.
It was the fifth ballot since Tuesday night, and they knew it would be the last. After that first vote, there was a ripple of surprise when the bookies’ favourite, the scholarly but energetic Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, received 30 votes instead of the anticipated 40. The runner-up, with 26 votes, was the cardinal who came second to Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.
Most commentators had written off Bergoglio because he was 76. But, of all the candidates, he seemed the most determined to clear out the filth in the Vatican. The year before, Benedict XVI’s butler had leaked documents revealing the industrial-scale blackmailing of senior clerics with an appetite for gay sex parties and money-laundering. The old pope was not personally implicated, but he clearly didn’t have a clue what to do about it. When he announced that, at 85, he no longer had the strength to do the job, few cardinals doubted that the so-called “Vatileaks” were to blame. Likewise, no one doubted that Bergoglio — who had been a nightclub bouncer before becoming a Jesuit priest — was looking forward to knocking heads together.