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April 26, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 29

John L. Allen Jr.


Some of the old bits of conventional wisdom about papal elections -- that he who goes in a pope, comes out a cardinal (now false in three of the last six elections); that the 76 percent of the cardinals who are residential would not elect a curial candidate; that a man too closely identified with the policies of the previous pontificate would not be elected; that 78 was too old -- turned out to be hogwash.

Pondering the first draft of history: Reflections on covering one pope's funeral and another's election


To read NCR's coverage of the papal transition, follow this link: Special Coverage.

I want to thank "Word From Rome" readers for their patience these last three weeks, as the column has been on hiatus during the intense period surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. In the wake of the papal election, I am finishing a project, a book on the conclave and new papacy for Doubleday, that is due May 10. So the column will remain in limbo for a few more weeks while I finish that manuscript.

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In the meantime, however, I wanted to share some quick, initial impressions of the momentous days we all have just experienced. These thoughts, coming hot on the heels of the events themselves, are scattered and perhaps not especially profound, but perhaps worth recording.

* * *

In the immediate aftermath of the election of Benedict XVI, several readers wrote, not without a tinge of schadenfreude, to remind me that in May 2002 I wrote a column predicting that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would not be elected pope. Others pointed out that in my "Top 20" list posted on the National Catholic Reporter's Web site, Ratzinger's name did not appear.

So, let me acknowledge, publicly and clearly, that I did not predict this.

In my defense, however, I would note that in my revised 2004 edition of Conclave, I listed Ratzinger among the candidates to watch. Moreover, in an April 14 story for the NCR Web site, four days before the opening of the conclave, I wrote the following: "The push for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's doctrinal czar for 24 years and the dean of the College of Cardinals, is for real. There is a strong basis of support for Ratzinger in the college, and his performance in the period following the death of the pope, especially his eloquent homily at the funeral Mass, seems to have further cemented that support. One Vatican official who has worked with Ratzinger over the years said on April 13, 'I am absolutely sure that Ratzinger will be the next pope.'"

On April 16, two days before the conclave, I wrote: "Despite the nonstop speculation surrounding the conclave that opens April 18, the press seems to have at least one thing right: In the early stages, the balloting will likely shape up as a 'yes' or 'no' to the candidacy of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger."

Hence I was not quite as off-key as some of my earlier writings might suggest. Nevertheless, it remains true that, like most commentators, my judgment was colored by some of the old bits of conventional wisdom about papal elections: that he who goes in a pope, comes out a cardinal (now false in three of the last six elections); that the 76 percent of the cardinals who are residential would not elect a curial candidate; that a man too closely identified with the policies of the previous pontificate would not be elected; that 78 was too old. All of that, it turns out, was hogwash.

Having spoken with a number of cardinals after the election, it seems clear to me that I and most of my colleagues simply over-analyzed this election. We thought in terms of geographical blocks, political interests, and public relations concerns; the cardinals, it seems, just asked themselves who among them was the best man for the job and voted accordingly. The fact that it didn't take them long suggests it did not strike them as an exceptionally difficult judgment to make.

As I said many times in lectures and on television when asked about Ratzinger, whatever you make of his theological positions, there's no question the man has everything you'd want in a pope: intellect, experience, integrity, deep spirituality, a gift for languages, and a sense of the universal church. Moreover, the list of such men in the College of Cardinals was not especially long.

I suppose the major reason I entertained doubts about Ratzinger as a papabile is what might be called the "baggage" factor. Fairly or unfairly, in some Catholic circles Ratzinger is a lightning rod, a beloved hero among conservatives and something of a Darth Vader figure for Catholic progressives. I wondered if the cardinals would want to elect as pope someone who brought with them that kind of profile.

Every journalist covering the Vatican to some extent reflects the limitations of his or her own nationality and cultural experience, and on this point, in hindsight, I see how much of an American I was. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, Ratzinger has no such profile, except in very restricted theological circles. Cardinals from those parts of the world did not bring such concerns. It's really only in pockets of Western Europe and North America that the broader Catholic public had any sense of the man prior to his election, explaining why some of the initial reservations about Ratzinger's candidacy came from American and German cardinals. In the end, they too seemed persuaded that the man the world would know as Benedict XVI would not match the public profile sometimes associated with Ratzinger, whom I once dubbed "the Vatican's enforcer."

On this score, it may be that the cardinals had better instincts than I did. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of American Catholics conducted shortly after the white smoke came up from the Sistine Chapel found that 31 percent had a favorable reaction to the new pope, 9 percent unfavorable, and almost 60 percent said they didn't have enough information to reach a conclusion. In other words, more than 90 percent of American Catholics already like the pope, or at least are willing to give him a chance. That's considerably less baggage than I might have guessed.

Still, nine percent of America's 65 million Catholics amounts to roughly 5.8 million people, which is a large pocket of opposition right out of the gate. Those numbers have been mirrored in polls across Western Europe. Obviously, Pope Benedict is aware that some Catholics have trepidations about where his papacy will go, and he has been at pains in the early days to calm anxieties. In his programmatic talk on Wednesday morning, April 20, following Mass with the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, he talked about dialogue, ecumenism, inter-religious outreach, the need for the church to witness to authentic social development, and his desire to transmit joy and hope to the world.

On Monday, April 25, in an audience with representatives of other religions, the pope said: "At the beginning of my pontificate I address to you, believers in religious traditions who represent all those who seek the truth with a sincere heart, a strong invitation to become together artisans of peace in a reciprocal commitment of comprehension, respect and love."

Make no mistake: the pontificate of Benedict XVI will be dramatic, and it will not always be comfortable for Catholics with views that might conventionally be described as "liberal" on matters of sexual morality, theological dissent, or authority in the church. At the same time, Pope Benedict is known as a man of deep intelligence and profound love for the church, and to date there's no evidence that he intends to launch a new anti-modernist purge. (That hasn't stopped some gleeful partisans from drawing up their own enemies lists, but it's too early to know what will come of all this).

My own sense is that Benedict is a pope who may surprise all of us. Whichever way the pontificate goes, it will be fascinating to watch.

* * *

Six years ago, I wrote a biography of the man who is now pope titled Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith. In the intervening period, I have learned a few things about the universal Catholic church and how things look from different perspectives. If I were to write the book again today, I'm sure it would be more balanced, better informed, and less prone to veer off into judgment ahead of sober analysis.

This, I want to stress, is not a Johnny-come-lately conclusion motivated by the fact that the subject of the book has now become the pope. In a lecture delivered at the Catholic University of America as part of the Common Ground series, on June 25, 2004, I said the following about the book:

"My 'conversion' to dialogue originated in a sort of 'bottoming out.' It came with the publication of my biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued by Continuum in 2000 and titled The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith. The first major review appeared in Commonweal, authored by another of my distinguished predecessors in this lecture series, Fr. Joseph Komonchak. It was not, let me be candid, a positive review. Fr. Komonchak pointed out a number of shortcomings and a few errors, but the line that truly stung came when he accused me of "Manichean journalism." He meant that I was locked in a dualistic mentality in which Ratzinger was consistently wrong and his critics consistently right. I was initially crushed, then furious. I re-read the book with Fr. Komonchak's criticism in mind, however, and reached the sobering conclusion that he was correct. The book - which I modestly believe is not without its merits - is nevertheless too often written in a "good guys and bad guys" style that vilifies the cardinal. It took Fr. Komonchak pointing this out, publicly and bluntly, for me to ask myself, 'Is this the kind of journalist I want to be'? My answer was no, and I hope that in the years since I have come to appreciate more of those shades of gray that Fr. Komonchak rightly insists are always part of the story.

After Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI was announced, I had hoped to have the opportunity to write a new preface for the book contextualizing some of the views it expresses. Unfortunately, the publisher in the United States, for reasons that I suppose are fairly obvious, had already begun reprinting the book without consulting me. Hence it is probably already appearing in bookstores, without any new material from me.

I can't do anything about that, although the British publishers were kind enough to ask me to write a new preface, which I have already done, so at least the damage will be limited in the U.K.

What is under my control, however, is a new book for Doubleday (a Random House imprint), which I hope will be a more balanced and mature account of both Ratzinger's views and the politics that made him pope. It has been in the works for some time and I hope it will be worthy of the enormity of the story, and the trust of those who elect to read it.

* * *

Some readers may have had the chance to catch bits and pieces of my commentary on CNN during the period from the final days of John Paul II, through the funeral Mass, the opening of the conclave, the election of Benedict XVI, and his inaugural Mass on April 24. As draining as all that work was -- American TV is at a special disadvantage when it comes to events in Rome, since prime time in the States ends at around 5 a.m. here -- I'm nevertheless conscious of what an extraordinary privilege it was to be able to help tell the story to the world as it unfolded.

Though the entire period was almost indescribable, the experience that left the deepest impression came the evening of April 2, the night John Paul II died. I was at my office when the SMS flash came over my cell phone from the Vatican press office. Moments later, I stepped onto a Roman rooftop with CNN's Aaron Brown, and for the next few hours we guided our audience through an examination of who John Paul was, what he accomplished and where he fell short, and why he meant so much to such a broad swath of humanity. I was conscious of the enormity of the subject, and of my own inadequacy to put it into words, especially unscripted and facing the pressure of speaking in short television bursts. In our own way, however, I think we managed to convey, however imperfectly, something of the singularity of the moment, and I'm exceedingly proud of what we accomplished.

That night was magic, and I will carry the memory of it with me forever.

It should be said that this work with CNN was possible because the National Catholic Reporter made the decision five years before that the Vatican required full-time coverage, and invested the resources to allow me to open up shop here. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Oddly enough, having prepared for these experiences night and day for more than five years, having run through endless scenarios on both logistical and journalistic fronts, the one thing that I never accounted for is that I would also have a personal, emotional response. After all, a man died, and not just any man -- John Paul loomed incredibly large in my life. I met him eight times, traveled with him to 21 nations, and probably wrote millions of words about him all told. While I realize there are perfectly reasonable criticisms to be made of various aspects of his papacy, what seems to me beyond question is that he was a man of deep faith and integrity, a genuinely good person striving by his lights to serve God, the church, and all of humanity. His final days taught me, and taught all of us, how to face impending death with both grit and grace, and it's a lesson I will never forget.

All that came to a crescendo during the funeral Mass, as I was sitting next to Christiane Amanpour and my colleague Delia Gallagher on the CNN set, watching the papal gentlemen pick up the pope's casket and turn it around for one final farewell to the crowd in St. Peter's Square. At that moment I had to choke back tears, realizing in an instant that I would never write another sentence about John Paul II in the present tense.

You don't say goodbye to someone like John Paul without a sense of loss. Yet the nature of the business being what it is, within hours we were off to the pre-conclave conversation, setting the stage for the next act in the drama.

Having lived it all from the inside, one reflection that strikes me is what an amazing stretch of coverage it was for the Catholic church worldwide. I dare say that never before has Catholic theology, liturgy and ecclesiology been laid out so thoroughly and continuously before a worldwide audience. I can't begin to describe how many middle-of-the-night phone calls I received from people in Atlanta and New York, to say nothing of Rome, striving to get the details right on matters large and small (ranging from what the core differences between Catholics and Protestants are, for example, all the way to why the cardinals wore white for the inaugural Mass).

While occasionally one can spot instances of bias or sloppiness in any profession, I would argue that it will be difficult after this experience to assert that the secular media, in any systematic way, is "anti-Catholic."

Moreover, it was fascinating listening to seasoned media professionals, including some of the biggest names in the business, wrestle with why these events -- especially those infinite lines to pay last respects to John Paul II, and the overwhelming outpouring of emotion at his funeral Mass -- had an impact on them. As if for the first time, some journalists found themselves wrestling with profound questions about God, themselves, and the meaning and purpose of human existence. What will come out of any of that is of course unknowable, but at least it had network executives in the last couple of weeks pondering whether they had under-valued the importance of religion stories.

That, surely, has to got to constitute a final mark in the positive side of John Paul's ledger.

* * *

Just a quick apology to all those colleagues from newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets in various parts of the world who called seeking comment over the last month, whom I never called back or was never able to help. Please know that it was not for a lack of interest or respect, but simply a question of my contractual obligations, in the first place, and then time in the second.

* * *

Finally, I would like to thank the members of the National Catholic Reporter's conclave coverage team: Tom Roberts, editor of NCR; Sr. Rita Larivee, publisher; Sr. Joan Chittister; Stacy Meichtry; and Dennis Coday, whom I include even though he stayed behind in Kansas City, because he provided invaluable backup editorial and technical support.

It was a joy sharing this experience with such talented and resourceful professionals, even if my crazy schedule meant I didn't actually see very much of any of them. I think we all can be proud of the documentary record of these days that NCR produced. I don't know of any press outlet that did a better job of capturing both the content and the "feel" of these days from diverse points of view.

I would also like to acknowledge my wife, Shannon, whom everyone on the NCR team will attest provided critical logistical and moral support throughout the long days and even longer nights. Her unpaid assistance loomed large in whatever successes we were able to achieve.

Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history, and I hope that what NCR produced over these days will become a standard resource in any future telling of these events.

Editor's Note: With this "The Word From Rome" column, NCR ends its special coverage of the papal transition. The reports by NCR writers and contributers will remain available online, but daily postings will end. NCR will continue to cover the papacy of Benedict XVI in the pages of its news weekly and on its Web site,

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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