ROSARIO, Argentina – An Argentine priest who knew Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires prior to his election as Pope Francis claims that in 2005, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI offered Bergoglio the position of Secretary of State, effectively the second most important position in the Vatican after the papacy itself, but the future pontiff turned it down.
Benedict XVI reportedly wanted Bergoglio to be his Secretary of State to help him clean up the Catholic Church’s central government, known as the Roman Curia. Eight years later, Bergoglio himself was elected to the papacy, in part precisely on a mandate of curial reform.
Several sources consulted by Crux who were close to Bergoglio in 2005 said they couldn’t confirm or deny the claim but found it “plausible.”
“I know Pope Paul VI suffered much due to the corruption in the Holy See,” Father Fernando Miguens told Crux in Buenos Aires. “I know John Paul II suffered due to it too, but he decided that mission would be his priority.”
“Poor Benedict tried to face it, and to do so, he approached Bergoglio to appoint him as his Secretary of State, but Jorge told him no,” Miguens said.
“Benedict wanted to choose someone who had the nails of a ‘guitar player’ so that this person could face the reform,” the priest said in an exclusive interview with Crux.
Miguens is the former rector of the Catholic seminary of San Miguel on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
Although this is the first time anyone has claimed Benedict wanted Bergoglio as his Secretary of State, it was widely rumored during the late St. John Paul II years that the Argentine cardinal might be in line for a top Vatican position. Veteran Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister reported in 2002 that after a strong performance in a 2001 Synod of Bishops, some of his fellow prelates wanted Bergoglio called to Rome, to which he reportedly responded, “Please, I would die in the Curia.”
In the end, Benedict nominated a former aide from his twenty-year tenure as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to serve as Secretary of State. Bertone held the post from 2006 to 2013.
The idea of Benedict wanting Bergoglio to be his top aide likely may strike casual observers of Church affairs as counter-intuitive.
Almost from the beginning of Francis’s papacy in 2013, the popular narrative has suggested a tension between Benedict the arch-conservative and Francis the progressive reformer. In reality, sources who know Bergoglio say the two men enjoyed a deep personal respect.
“I had heard from him [Bergoglio] that the relationship between them was unsurpassable, that it was personal,” a former aide, who today works in the private sector told Crux. “Whenever the cardinal was in Rome, he would go to Benedict’s office almost without requesting an audience, which was confirmed to me by several Rome-based journalists.”
The two would speak on the phone regularly, even once a month at times, another source confirmed.
British writer Austen Ivereigh, papal biographer and author of The Great Reformer, told Crux that “Cardinal Bergoglio had a reputation in Rome as an anti-corruption crusader and Pope Benedict rated him very highly, so the idea of asking him to be Secretary of State seems plausible.”
“If so, Bergoglio was wise to turn it down,” Ivereigh said. “Without the authority of the papacy behind a sweeping reform, it couldn’t be done.”
The fact that Bergoglio was the runner-up in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict is well-documented, as is the fact that the then-Argentine cardinal told those who were propelling his candidacy, without his encouragement, that he supported Ratzinger for pope.
Also well-documented by Argentine journalist Mariano de Vedia in her book In the Name of the Pope is a plot from 2008, orchestrated by the government of then-Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, that involved Bertone and Argentine prelates Archbishop Hector Aguer and Bishop Oscar Sarlinga, today resigned from La Plata and Zarate-Campana respectively.
Ironically, they planned to remove Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, give that archdiocese to Sarlinga and put Bergoglio into a Vatican job. However, even though he was involved in the plot, it’s not clear if Bertone understood at the time that Bergoglio had turned down the position that Bertone himself then held.
Miguens said that Bergoglio’s commitment to Vatican reform, the quality that interested Benedict about the Argentine prelate 14 years ago, hasn’t wavered since his election as Pope Francis.
What has changed, according to Miguens, is the pope’s perception of the time required to get the job done. Originally, he said, Francis believed he could put the house in order in three years, but has since realized it’s going to take much more than that.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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