“Come, Holy Spirit,” cardinals pray in the Sistine Chapel for the Counselor’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 papa 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 Advocate throughout the Second Vatican Council. Cardinals are free to listen and to act according to the Counselor, and 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 the church until the end of the world and guide it through the Spirit; therefore, we believe that the Spirit will offer guidance to cardinals to elect a pontiff. Listening to the Holy Spirit is more an art than a science, because a Christian must practice to recognize the voice of the Comforter.
Since 1903, elections have been brief with conclaves averaging three days, and the last two conclaves lasting 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 decision, quick and clean, because General Congregations reached a consensus before voting.
The recent history of conclave voting has also shown that 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 where He will. The cardinals of the 2013 conclave probably heeded to the Spirit of God, for there was no favorite candidate and Pope Francis emerged on the fifth ballot.
“Francis believes the Catholic Church needs to be at one with the people it serves and not imposing its message on a society that often doesn’t want to hear it,” remarked Francis’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin. “The former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio believes the church has to go to the streets,” said Rubin, “to express this closeness of the church and this accompaniment with the people who suffer.” 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 that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina’s capital.