March 5, 2020 (Steven O’Reilly) – Almost seven years ago to this day, the General Congregations for the 2013 conclave commenced. These meetings were attended by both cardinal-electors and those cardinals who would not be eligible to vote in the conclave which would begin mid-March 2013.
This may call to mind the potential role played in the conclave by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, regarding whom we still await the Vatican’s report on his sexual crimes and other corrupt acts. It has been just over a year since the release of the Testimony of Archbishop Vigano, which revealed that Pope Francis had lifted sanctions placed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI. Vigano recounted his audience with the Pope in which Francis asked “what is McCarrick like?” The question was, as Vigano notes, deceitful as Francis was a long-time friend of McCarrick. The question appeared intended to determine whether Vigano was an “ally of McCarrick or not.”
This was not the first time, nor the last, when Pope Francis would appear to reward or protect a friend. Readers may recall the infamous story of how Francis interrupted Cardinal Muller, as the the cardinal was saying mass, to demand he end an investigation into Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor over an abuse allegation. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, another long-time friend of Pope Francis, is considered one of the key “pope-makers” of the conclave which elected Cardinal Bergoglio.
Catholics, understandably, wonder what motivated Pope Francis to lift the sanctions on McCarrick. Vigano in his Testimony seems to suggest one factor was the “important part he (McCarrick) had played in his (Bergoglio’s) recent election.” Here Vigano has in mind McCarrick’s revelation in an October 2013, during a lecture at Villanova University in which he recounted a curious tale. In early March 2013, just before the General Congregations, the pre-conclave meetings of cardinals, McCarrick was visited by an “influential Italian gentleman” at the North American College in Rome.
Some have speculated this “Italian gentleman” was a priest or cardinal, others a freemason. However, it is my opinion that the “influential Italian gentleman” may have been hiding in plain sight. Henry Sire, author of The Dictator Pope, is of the opinion this “Italian” was a layman. McCarrick’s reference suggests this “gentleman” was a layman. From McCarrick’s description we may glean some obvious points, such as the “Italian” was probably close to Bergoglio, had knowledge of McCarrick’s friendship with him, and was himself a Bergoglio partisan. Also, as “very influential man in Rome,” it appears his profession allowed him to move in circles which included high-ranking prelates.
This enigmatic visitor reminded McCarrick of his friendship with Bergoglio (“I know you’re his friend”) then lobbied him in favor of Bergoglio, saying five years of him would be enough to remake the Church. This “Italian gentleman” asked McCarrick to ‘talk up, Bergoglio’ with other cardinals. The potential Bergoglian interest in McCarrick is understandable. McCarrick could ‘talk up Bergoglio’ with his fellow American cardinals, but more importantly McCarrick was known to be very influential with third world cardinals from Asia and Africa. Curiously, Murphy-O’Connor would later say “the key was getting the Asians and Africans to support Bergoglio.” I have discussed this in greater detail in a prior article on the subject of why McCarrick would have been of value in an papal election campaign for Bergoglio (see The “Influential Italian Gentleman”).
The identity of this “influential Italian gentleman” has been the subject of much speculation due to concerns over potentially illicit campaigning by the St. Gallen mafia. Aside from his identity, a couple key questions with regard to this seemingly mysterious visitor include:
- Was this visitor acting on his own behalf, and thus expressing only his own wishes that McCarrick ‘talk up’ a Bergoglian papacy?
- Or, was the visitor acting on behalf and with the knowledge, direction, and approval of someone else, e.g., Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, or even Cardinal Bergoglio?
With regard to question #1, a “yes” answer does not seem to pose any difficulties. Catholics (or non-Catholics) might have their personal preferences for whom the next pope might be, perhaps based on what they know about a candidate, personal friendship or a mixture of both. So, for the visitor to have expressed such thoughts or suggestions as he did does not appear to me to pose a problem. However, with regard to question #2, the papal legislation governing papal elections, Universi Dominici Gregis (UDG), explicitly prohibits “…all possible forms of interference, opposition and suggestion whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree, or any individual or group, might attempt to exercise influence on the election of the Pope” (cf. UDG 80). Was the mysterious visitor acting with the knowledge, direction, and approval of one or more cardinals seeking to elect Cardinal Bergoglio?
In his book The Dictator Pope, Henry Sire observes while Bergoglio made a show of being ‘indifferent’ and “making a circus of not wanting to go to Rome” for the conclave, this was far from the truth. Sire cites El Verdadero Francisco which quotes one priest, who dismissing this pretense of disinterest, said “…I knew that he was talking to half the world and plotting like mad.” That Bergoglio took an active interest in events in Rome following Benedict’s resignation announcement also comes through clear enough in O’Connell’s book. Therefore, it is curious that on the day of Bergoglio’s arrival in Rome on February 27, he did not dine with important cardinals but with several Italian journalists.
Our only real sources of the immediate days surrounding the resignation of Benedict and election of Cardinal Bergoglio, and the movements of the parties involved are the several books written on the election of Pope Francis. Perhaps the place we might look for the Italian layman who might fit McCarrick’s general description (e.g., a friend of Bergoglio, respected and influential man in Rome, etc) is in these books — the “Bergoglian gospels” if you will.
The four main accounts of Bergoglio’s election written by Bergoglian ‘insiders’ include Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s memoir, and the three “synoptic” accounts by Austen Ivereigh, Andrea Tornielli and Gerard O’Connell. Reading these “synoptic” accounts of the conclave period, a few Italian laymen from Bergoglio’s inner circle do stand out–and these, I believe, are the only Italian laymen mentioned in any of the accounts. These Italians were all journalists.
On February 27, these Italian journalists were the ones with whom Bergoglio dined — the night before Pope Benedict’s resignation (February 28, 2013). All were long-time friends Bergoglio, avid Bergoglians, and notable “vaticanisti.” The more prominent of these is Andrea Tornielli, who at the time of the 2013 conclave was a writer at La Stampa and Vatican Insider. In December 2018, Pope Francis appointed Tornielli as Editorial Director of the Dicastery of Communications at the Vatican.
On March 1, 2013, according to O’Connell’s book, Bergoglio dined with Murphy-O’Connor. This differs from the late Murphy-O’Connor’s memoir which places this dinner on March 3. This discrepancy raises interesting questions regarding the timeline (e.g., were there two dinners with the two cardinals?) which we cannot go into here. However, O’Connell certainly had the cardinal’s memoir before him in writing his own account, as well as his own interview notes with Murphy-O’Connor, thus I believe — if we must choose one — the earlier date is likely the correct one. It is at this dinner the two discussed the election strategy; the late Murphy-O’Connor’s protestations to the contrary are difficult to believe (see some additional commentary on Murphy-O’Connor here).
The morning after the Bergoglio/Murphy-O’Connor dinner, March 2nd, Andrea Tornielli published an article in Vatican Insider, a news site closely followed by cardinals, bishops and the Roman curia. The article was a favorable puff piece on Cardinal Bergoglio which could have only pleased the Argentine cardinal. Certainly in retrospect, one could be excused for thinking that this article amounted to something of a ‘campaign announcement,’ a veritable campaign press release for Bergoglio. The very first sentence of the article gets straight to the pithy punchline of a campaign slogan for any cardinal with a short attention span: “‘Four years of Bergoglio would be enough to change things..’, whispers a long-time cardinal friend of the archbishop of Buenos Aires.”
The widely-circulated article certainly aided Bergoglio. It is known that Murphy-O’Connor used this quote himself with another writer. If Murphy-O’Connor was the first to utter this line, had he been interviewed by Tornielli after his dinner with Bergoglio on March 1? Is that where Tornielli got the quote? Yet, if we accept Murphy-O’Connor’s claims that interest in Bergoglio’s candidacy did not coalesce around the cardinal until after the start of the General Congregations (March 4, 2013) and that he did not dine with Bergoglio until March 3rd, we are left with the distinct–and very amusing–possibility that Bergoglio was himself the source of the quote in Tornielli’s article of March 2nd — possibly from their dinner of February 27!
Regardless, McCarrick’s “Italian” visitor used a line very reminiscent of the one found in Tornielli’s article. The visitor said: “If we had five years, the Lord working through Bergoglio in five years could make the Church over again.” McCarrick said the “Italian gentleman” visited him just before the General Congregations, which would place the visit, mostly likely, on either March 2 or March 3, just after publication of Tornielli’s article.
It is certainly speculation to suggest the identity of the “influential Italian gentleman.” However, given McCarrick’s apparent role in the election of Cardinal Bergoglio, as well as his rehabilitation by Pope Francis after his election; it is a question of relevance, even if only for the historical record. Asking McCarrick to ‘talk up Bergoglio’ might have only expressed the unknown visitor’s personal preference for Bergoglio as a friend rather than complicity in such an illicit campaign for Cardinal Bergoglio. Indeed, there may have been absolutely nothing inappropriate about such a visit. Only if — and that is a big if — such a visit was arranged with the knowledge and approval of Bergoglio or another cardinal acting with him, would it seem to run afoul of UDG.
Still, it is a curious episode in the tale of McCarrick and the 2013 conclave. One can only hope that someone in the Vatican press corp will put the question directly to the relevant parties above to either rule in or rule out possibilities. In addition, it would be great if some intrepid reporter could track down McCarrick, before he dies, to ask him: who was the “influential Italian gentleman” — and who, if anyone, sent him?
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A former intelligence officer, he and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is author of the recently published Book I of the Pia Fidelis trilogy, The Two Kingdoms. (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA)