Report From Saint Peter’s

An Argentine Runner-Up Gets the Catholic Church’s Top Job

Catholics have to decipher what the College of Cardinals was thinking when it made this not-so-young, not-so-well-known leader the new pope. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports from Vatican City.

03.13.13 10:17 PM ET

In the end, the Vaticanisti had it wrong. After nearly two weeks of expert Vatican speculation following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on February 28, the names floating to the top of the heap never quite settled on Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 76-year-old archbishop of Buenos Aires. Not even SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, had thought to include Bergoglio on their list. Why? Because as the main contender to Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, many had assumed Bergoglio’s moment had passed.

But when the white smoke poured out of the dampened chimney and the bells of Saint Peter’s rang on a rainy Roman Wednesday afternoon, the crowds went wild with anticipation. Romans did as Romans do and ran to Saint Peter’s Square to await word of just who would be leading the Roman Catholic Church. As time passed, excitement quickly gave way to mild speculation. By the time the red curtains on the balcony were drawn, almost 40 minutes later, most people in the square had settled on the Italian Angelo Scola or the Brazilian Odilo Scherer. After all, the Vatican experts had predicted that a short conclave meant that one of the two frontrunners had cinched the deal.

Instead, it was truly a “habemus who?” moment in Saint Peter’s Square when Bergoglio’s name was read. There were no yells of celebration. Instead the mood was lukewarm as pilgrims and journalists quizzically asked each other whose name was announced and then tried to figure out just who the new pope was. “Who? Who?” a group of Roman nuns near the center of the square asked each other frantically. “Bergoglio? Who is he? Where is he from?”

The confusion was justified. Bergolio was considered as the runner-up to Ratzinger in 2005. But it seemed most people in Saint Peter’s Square on Wednesday evening either forgot that trivia or had never been told. Bergoglio, the first Jesuit pope, is from a country that has never produced a pope. His choice of Francis as his title, a papal name that has never been used before, did nothing to settle confusion. But by the time whispers spread through the square, the revelation that there was a Latin American pope—never mind that his father was an Italian immigrant—had eclipsed any doubts. Pilgrims sang, nuns cried, and Argentines waved their national flags.

Pope Francis then greeted the waiting crowd with what can only be described as nervous, apprehensive silence before announcing that the College of Cardinals had looked “far away” to find the new “bishop of Rome.” His brother cardinals lined the nearby balconies in their red vestments and caps, looking something like flowers on the ledges from down below. Then Pope Francis said a prayer for his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was no doubt watching the excitement on television from the papal summer palace in Castel Gandalfo outside Rome. Pope Francis then asked for the prayers of the pilgrims and returned back inside the church, almost as reluctantly as he appeared. Now the billion-strong flock of the Catholic Church will have to decipher what the College of Cardinals was thinking with this not-so-young, not-so-well-known leader.