— Entering the conclave to select the next pope, the 115 cardinal electors of the Roman Catholic Church faced two challenges last week.
First, they had to choose a direction for the church, then find a man who could steer the course. Despite having served in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI eight years ago, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George still found himself in uncharted waters.
"Following John Paul II, you wanted continuity after such a great papacy," George said in an interview with the Tribune. "This time, you wanted something different. Because the choice wasn't so clear, I felt at least a sense of God's providence and the work of the spirit more closely than I did the last time around, because it was a struggle."
As Pope Francis held his first public Mass at a tiny Vatican parish less than a mile away, afterward greeting parishioners one by one, George celebrated one more Mass for seminarians at Pontifical North American College before he returns this week to Chicago. During the homily and later interview, he talked about the conclave as an "exercise in freedom," referring to the cardinals' freedom to elect and the new pope's freedom to govern because he has a "clean slate."
"He's not bogged down with a lot of baggage. That would leave him free to do the task that has to be done and take a look at the governance," George said. "He will have fewer entanglements to untangle than almost anybody else."
George explained how his short list of candidates evolved in the general congregations leading up to the conclave and how prayers during the election process helped him tune out distractions and focus on the task.
He said his priorities never strayed from searching for a strong governor who had a heart for the poor. It simply took him a while to realize who possessed both qualities.
"The question was who can govern — governing includes teaching and sanctifying — but who is able to direct the church in the way that Christ would have it move," he said.
When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stood in the general congregations to address the mission of the church, George suddenly recalled his popularity in 2005. He had thought Bergoglio's age excluded him from consideration. But the 76-year-old man in front of the cardinals exuded an unexpected vitality. The archbishop from Buenos Aires was still a contender, George said.
"It wasn't so much what he said as who said it and how he said it, very direct, very sincere," George said. "He talked about the church being a mission and not being self-referential, which is a wonderful thing to say, but he's not the only one to have said that. He said it very clearly though. … It was more reminding us of who this person is rather than telling us something we didn't know."
By then, George had developed some qualms about his short list. After learning at the last conclave to prepare by asking hard questions about his fellow prelates, he heard reports about internal conflicts and other drama involving cardinals that hadn't reached Chicago.
"When you talk to others (asking) what baggage are they bringing that will get in the way, there was new stuff I heard, stuff I didn't know," George said. "As we moved along, that was responsible for judging people differently."
"You look at somebody who has governed most of his life … and who doesn't bring a lot of animosity, for right reasons and wrong," he added.
Bergoglio had managed a large metropolitan diocese and the Society of Jesus. But he had never managed in Rome, and that kept him free and clear of the drama.
"It's not who is the holiest cardinal or who is the smartest. The most basic question is: Is he free to govern?" George said.
"He's free because he's a man of prayer," he said. "He's not attached to himself. He's internally free and externally free as much as possible."
George said prayer helped free him from selfishness or ulterior motives when writing the name of the man he thought should be the next pope on each ballot.
"If you're in prayer, you're before God, and then you don't lie to yourself. Before God, that's not a good thing to do," he said with a chuckle. "If you're trying to be very honest with yourself, then a lot of things can come: 'What is my real motivation here? Why am I thinking that? What does this mean for the church?' which is always the big question."
In his homily Sunday, George thanked the seminarians and others in the pews for their participation in the conclave through prayer, then transported the audience into the Sistine Chapel with his narrative of the voting process.
"As votes change with each ballot, then the question intensifies: 'What is being said about who is the one to be elected? What is moving among us now?' Sometimes in the last ballot, there is a palpable sense of Christ's presence as you write the name."