“Come, Holy Spirit,” cardinals pray in the Sistine Chapel for the Holy Spirit’s guidance to elect a new pope. The Holy Spirit did neither prompt the election of Benedict IX (1032–1048), a thoroughly corrupt pope, nor the election of Alexander VI (1492–1503), who had several mistresses and children. A conclave elected John XXIII, the elderly Italian pope chosen as a transitional figurehead; yet, he announced the Second Vatican Council within three months of his election, which has dramatically changed the Catholic Church. Bishops spoke of the unexpected presence of the Holy Spirit at the Second Vatican Council.
Each conclave must cooperate with Grace to be efficacious. The Holy Spirit can move cardinals to choose the person most able to respond to the “signs of the times.” Christ promised to be with His Church until the end of the world and guide it through the Holy Spirit.
Since 1903, elections have been brief with conclaves averaging three days, and the last two conclaves lasted one day, electing Pope Benedict XVI on the fourth ballot and Pope Francis on the fifth ballot. A quick conclave demonstrates unity of mind and purpose, and may denote an efficacious influence of the Holy Ghost, whereas a slow conclave signals dissension that might undermine a future pope’s standing. The cardinals of the 2013 conclave were motivated to make a quick decision, because General Congregations reached a consensus before voting.
The recent history of conclave voting has shown if the momentum for the early favorite breaks, the electors readily find another candidate likely to gain consensus quickly and win fast. Group dynamics surely play a part in any conclave, but the Spirit blows as He wills. The cardinals of the 2013 conclave probably heeded to the Spirit of God, because without favorite candidate Pope Francis emerged on the fifth ballot.
“The former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio believed the church must go to the streets to accompany suffering people.” The newly elected pope, the first from Latin America, chose the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, the humble friar dedicated to the poor. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries of previous cardinals in Buenos Aires. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina’s capital.