The cover of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” by A

The cover of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” by Austen Ivereigh. Photo via Henry Holt / RNS.

Was there a secret plot to elect Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio at the papal conclave last year?

Did Bergoglio — who became Pope Francis at that conclave — give the go-ahead to such a plan?

And does that campaign call his election, and his papacy, into question?

Such questions might sound like plot twists to a new Vatican thriller by Dan Brown, but they are actually the latest talking points promoted by some Catholic conservatives upset with the direction that Francis is leading the church.

The furor stems from a behind-the-scenes account of the March 2013 conclave, presented in a new book about Francis titled “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”

In the last chapter of the biography, which focuses on Bergoglio’s early life in Argentina and career as a Jesuit, author Austen Ivereigh delivers an insider account of how a group of cardinals who wanted a reformer pope quietly sought to rally support for Bergoglio in the days leading up to the conclave.

Pope Francis greets the crowd at his general audience in St. Peter's Square. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

As Pope Francis approaches the one-year mark of his papacy, his global flock and a fascinated public are starting to measure the changes he is making against the sky-high hopes for transforming an institution many thought impervious to change.

Every personnel move and every new proposal is being scrutinized for what it might indicate about the direction of the church, what it might augur about possible adjustments to church teaching and whether the aspirations of so many will be fulfilled — or frustrated.

But as important as such structural and policy moves can be, church leaders and Vatican insiders say the 77-year-old Francis is really focused on a more ambitious (and perhaps more difficult) goal: overhauling and upending the institutional culture of Catholicism.

Francis, they say, is bent on converting the church, as it were, so that the faith is positioned to flourish in the future no matter who follows him to the throne of St. Peter.

Eric J. Lyman 02-11-2014

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Christmas Eve Mass in 2012. RNS photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

After a tumultuous year that saw the first papal resignation in nearly six centuries, the election of Pope Francis, and a dramatic reshaping of the church’s style and tone, the man who set those wheels in motion has no regrets.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, now retired and living in seclusion inside the Vatican, is at peace in his new role and believes history will vindicate his difficult eight-year papacy, his closest aide said in a rare interview.

“It is clear that humanly speaking, many times, it is painful to see that what is written about someone does not correspond concretely to what was done,” Archbishop Georg Ganswein said in an interview with the Reuters news agency on the anniversary of Benedict’s surprise announcement on Feb. 11, 2013, that he would resign.

Eric J. Lyman 10-30-2013

Cardinals attend Mass at St. Peter’s before the conclave on March 12, 2013. Via RNS/Courtesy BostonCatholic via Flickr.

The National Security Agency spied on cardinals as they prepared to select the new pope — perhaps including even Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who emerged from last spring’s conclave as Pope Francis, a leading Italian news magazine reported in Wednesday’s editions.

The news magazine Panorama said the same NSA eavesdropping program that angered leaders in Germany, France, Spain, and Mexico also listened in on calls to and from the Vatican, including the phones in the Santa Marta guesthouse that housed Bergoglio and the rest of the College of Cardinals.

Pope Francis still lives in the guesthouse, but the magazine did not speculate whether the phones there were still tapped.

RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Cardinals enter mass at St. Peter’s basilica on March 12. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY — As 115 cardinal-electors solemnly processed into the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday afternoon, with a cry of “Extra omnes!” and the latest high-tech jamming devices cutting them off from the world, the buzz outside the Vatican over who would eventually emerge as pope grew deafening.

Everyone had theories, many had favorites, and most declared it all so unpredictable that the winner – or even how long it would take to find him – was anybody’s guess.

“We are living through an extraordinary conclave,” Marco Tosatti wrote in La Stampa, the Italian daily whose insider coverage of the pre-conclave meetings read like a tip sheet for papal bookies.

“If we look at the history of conclaves over the last century, never has there been such a range of choices, and such uncertainty over the outcome up to the moment that the doors of the Sistine Chapel closed,” he said.

In fact, the latest lines were varied and morphing all the time, a feast of permutations for Vaticanisti who parse papal elections the way sci-fi geeks deconstruct a new installment of “Star Wars.”

Alessandro Speciale 03-12-2013
RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

A view of St. Peter’s square on the first day of the conclave. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY — Black smoke from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel signaled that the first day of the conclave ended without the election of a new pope.

Even if the first-round outcome was largely expected, thousands of people on Tuesday braved the inclement Roman weather to wait for the result of the vote. They slowly filled up St. Peter’s Square as the evening progressed, with their eyes fixed on the small chimney.

Cries of disappointment erupted from the crowd when the black smoke appeared instead of the white smoke that would herald a successful election.

Alessandro Speciale 03-12-2013
 Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Cardinals attend the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass at St Peter's Basilica Tuesday. Franco Origlia/Getty Images

VATICAN CITY — The doors of the Sistine Chapel closed behind the cardinals on Tuesday, marking the official start of the conclave that will elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

The 115 cardinal-electors walked in procession into the Sistine Chapel, singing hymns and invoking the Holy Spirit, before filing under Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and taking a solemn oath of secrecy on everything that will happen during the conclave.

At the end of the oath-taking ceremony, the master of papal ceremonies, the Rev. Guido Marini, ordered the “extra omnes” (Latin for “everybody out”).

Cardinals will be sequestered inside a Vatican residence until a candidate receives the two-thirds majority needed for election to the papacy.

Duane Shank 03-12-2013
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Cardinal Angelo Scola attends the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass on Tuesday. Franco Origlia/Getty Images

As the College of Cardinals begins its conclave today in Rome to select the next Pope, I find myself intensely interested in the outcome. Since I am an Anabaptist, a child of the “radical” Reformation, I’ve spent some time reflecting on why that is so.

First, the Roman Catholic Church is an unbroken link to the first century Roman church for all Christians, no matter our denomination. Before the so-called “Great Schism” between the eastern and western church in 1054, the Christian church led from Rome was THE primary Christian church. No matter if we are Eastern or Western Christians, no matter how Protestant or Anabaptist some of us are, the Church of Rome is still in some way our Mother church.

Second, it remains the largest Christian tradition in the world.

Alessandro Speciale 03-12-2013

The Sistine Chapel, where the conclave is taking place. Photo courtesy Religion News Service.

As if the task of choosing the Vicar of Christ and the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics wasn’t daunting enough, the voting must also take place under the gaze of Michelangelo’s brilliant but imposing frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

That’s what the late Pope John Paul II decreed when he rewrote the conclave rules in 1996, and so it shall be starting today — and for however many days it takes the 115 cardinal-electors to choose a successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who retired last month.

In the Sistine Chapel, “everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in whose sight each person will one day be judged,” John Paul II wrote in his 1996 Apostolic Constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis,” which regulates papal elections.

RNS photo by David Gibson

A poster of Pope Benedict XVI on the streets of Rome. The conclave will begin on Tuesday. RNS photo by David Gibson

VATICAN CITY — Amid all of the prognosticating about who the cardinals could choose as the next pope in the conclave that starts here on Tuesday, one reliable thread has emerged: the desire to elect a pontiff who can be a pastor to the world as well as a taskmaster to the Roman Curia.

Finding such a combination in a single man, of course, may prove difficult if not impossible, which adds to the almost unprecedented level of uncertainty surrounding this papal election.

So if anything is possible, some say it might be better to reverse the prevailing wisdom — look for a pope who will talk tough to Catholics (and the world) while shepherding the Curia with a firm hand in order to better police the wayward.

The prospect might appall progressives and others who were happy to see the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, but it has enough appeal to conservatives that they are trying to make the case.

One reason for their sense of urgency is that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger turned out to be more of a papal pussycat as Benedict XVI than the watchdog of orthodoxy that he had been for decades while serving under John Paul II.

Is now the time for a pope who could be more of a Ratzinger than a Benedict?

VATICAN CITY — The conclave to pick a new pope will begin on Tuesday the Vatican said on Friday, resolving an open question that had dogged the cardinals meeting here over the past week.

The cardinals will celebrate a special Mass “pro eligendo Romano Pontifice” — for the election of the Roman Pontiff — in St. Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday morning, and in the afternoon the cardinals will enter into the Conclave, the Vatican said.

The date was set by the cardinals gathered in a late-afternoon session on Friday. They were scheduled to vote on the decision, but there was no word on how many supported the Tuesday start date or how many preferred an earlier or a later date.

In one of his last acts before resigning on Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI amended the law regulating papal elections to allow cardinals to move up the beginning of the conclave, which would normally not be able to start until at least 15 days after a pope dies or leaves office.

Because Benedict resigned — the first pope to do so in 600 years — and announced his plans on Feb. 11, the cardinals did not have to focus on a funeral, as they did when John Paul II died in April 2005. They also have had nearly a month to think about a successor.

As a result, many believed the cardinals did not need to wait long after Benedict’s resignation took effect to begin the conclave itself.

Interior of the Sistine Chapel. Photo courtesy RNS / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In Catholic theology, as in the popular imagination, the closed-door conclave to elect a new pope is supposed to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

There’s no horse-trading or lobbying, no insider deal-making or outside influences allowed. Just red-robed cardinals solemnly entering the Sistine Chapel, accompanied only by prayers and their consciences, sitting beneath Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment and discerning God’s will on who should be the next successor to St. Peter.

At least that’s the theory. The last millennium has shown that papal elections can be fraught with politics or worse, and can take months or even years of wrangling to reach a resolution.

Reporters listen as cardinals speak to the press in the Vatican Tuesday. Photo courtesy Religion News Service.

Tensions among the Roman Catholic cardinals meeting here to choose a new pope appeared to escalate on Wednesday as the American prelates in Rome canceled their daily press briefing under pressure from colleagues who are frustrated over news coverage of their secret talks.

The cardinals also announced that they still had not been able to agree on a start date for the conclave, in which 115 electors will cast their ballots for a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

The effort to control the flow of information from the daily pre-conclave “General Congregation” meetings marked a sharp reversal from the unprecedented openness that had characterized this first papal conclave of the digital age.

Cardinals at the papal conclave in April 2005. Photo courtesy Rostislav Glinsky/

“In the church,” Chicago Cardinal Francis George once said, “everything has happened at least once!” That’s no surprise given that the Catholic Church is a nearly 2,000-year-old institution that has adapted to radically different epochs.

But electing a new pope while the former pope is still alive? That’s rare.

So what are some other firsts and lasts, quirks and facts of papal history that you should know? There are plenty, and Religion News Service has compiled a handy guide.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Photo courtesy Religion News Service.

Days after pulling out of the conclave to elect the next pope and vowing to fight the charges against him, disgraced Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien admitted Sunday to inappropriate “sexual conduct.”

O’Brien, who until a week ago was the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric in England and Scotland, had served as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh for the last seven years and was made a cardinal in 2003.

Alessandro Speciale 03-05-2013

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley celebrates Sunady Mass on March 3, 2013. Photo courtesy Religion News Service.

Roman Catholic cardinals on Monday met for the first of a series of closed-door meetings in the run-up to the conclave that will elect the successor to former Pope Benedict XVI.

But as cardinals filed into a Vatican conference room under the gaze of dozens of cameras, church officials said 12 voting prelates still haven’t arrived in Rome, pushing back the possibility of an early start to the conclave.

Alessandro Speciale 02-28-2013
Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful as he leaves St Peter's Square on Feb. 27. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

VATICAN CITY — The papacy of Benedict XVI came to a quiet end at 8 p.m. on Thursday, making him the first pope in 600 years to voluntarily leave office.

While there was no formal ceremony to mark the historic passage, the end of Benedict’s papacy and the beginning of the “sede vacante” interim period was clear when the Swiss Guards left their post at the gate of the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

The Swiss Guards are charged with protecting the pope. When Benedict ceased to be pope, his security was no longer in their hands. At the Vatican, officials sealed the pope’s apartment as prescribed by church law, and will destroy the pope’s ring and official seal in the coming days.

Vatican City at night, Vladimir Mucibabic /

Vatican City at night, Vladimir Mucibabic /

The Vatican appears rocked by scandalous rumors and resignations just as church leaders must gear up to replace frail Pope Benedict XVI with a closed-door conclave.

But Vatican experts say if you think the world’s largest nongovernmental institution is in unprecedented chaos right now, think again.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano presents the papal fisherman ring to Pope Benedict XVI at the new pope’s installation Mass. The fisherman’s ring bears an image of Peter, his boat and his net, which figure in two Gospel accounts of miraculous catches of fish. Benedict said that while fish die when removed from the sea, “in the mission of a fisher of men the reverse is true.” 

“Have you ever heard of the Borgias?” quipped professor Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department for Fordham University in New York. They were the larcenous, adulterous, murderous, election-rigging, Renaissance-era family of renaissance popes “who ran the papacy for decades like a private fief.”

For all the sex, money, and power headlines wafting out of Rome these days, at least no one has been murdered. Infighting and innuendo, though, are ancient traditions that have moved into the bright lights of the 24/7 news cycle and social media.

View of St. Peter's Basilica, Iakov Kalinin/

View of St. Peter's Basilica, Iakov Kalinin/

If you want a crash course on how papal politics really works, look no further than the saga of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

On Friday, Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric grabbed headlines by telling the BBC that priestly celibacy was “not of divine origin” and that he’d be “happy” if priests had the option to marry.

On Saturday, O’Brien was back in the news, this time after four men reportedly accused him of “inappropriate acts” dating back to the 1980s.

By Monday, O’Brien had resigned as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh and announced he would skip the conclave.

From champion of married priests to disgraced churchman within 72 hours, O’Brien’s trajectory is stunning but also emblematic of the frenetic and fever-pitched campaigning that occurs during the tiny window between a pope’s death or resignation and the election of his successor.

Wikimedia photo courtesy Gavin Scott.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia photo courtesy Gavin Scott.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland resigned on Monday in the wake of explosive charges that he had made “inappropriate” sexual advances to four men, three of them priests, and one now a former seminarian, starting in the 1980s.

O’Brien said he would skip next month’s conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, leaving the United Kingdom without a cardinal’s voice in the election of a new pope.

In a statement, O’Brien said Benedict had accepted his resignation effective immediately, and he appeared to allude to the events surrounding his sudden exit.

“Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended,” said the cardinal, who turns 75 next month, which is the mandatory retirement age for bishops. Cardinals retain the right to vote in a conclave until age 80.