The events of the conclave behind the walls of the Sistine Chapel generally remain shrouded in mystery—but through Cardinal Sean O’Malley and a few other insiders comes a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the moments leading up to yesterday’s “white smoke” decision.
No matter how beautiful the chapel, Chicago Cardinal Francis George said, the acoustics aren’t great. The presiding cardinal, Giovanni Battista Re, had to explain each step in the ritual twice, once to each side of the room. Other than that, there was only silence.
“The conclave is a very prayerful experience,” O’Malley said. “It’s like a retreat.”
Each man wrote a few words in Latin on a piece of paper: “I elect as supreme pontiff…” followed by a name.
One by one, they held the paper aloft, placed it on a gold-and-silver saucer at the front of the room, and tipped it into an urn. And then the tallying began, with three cardinals — known as scrutineers — reading out the name on each slip.
But with the results of the first count, the field remained “wide open”, and the crowd outside soon saw black smoke billow from the chimney.
On Wednesday morning, the conclave continued.
“When you walk up with the ballot in your hand and stand before the image of the Last Judgment, that is a great responsibility,” O’Malley said.
There were two votes before lunch, and the field was narrowing. But the smoke was black again, and the crowd was again disappointed. This time, however, they didn’t leave the square.
At lunch, O’Malley sat down besides Bergoglio. ”He is very approachable, very friendly,” he said. “He has a good sense of humor, he is very quick and a joy to be with.” But with the vote going his way, Bergoglio was uncharacteristically somber.
In the first afternoon ballot, the cardinals were getting close to a decision. But not quite. They started over, and the scrutineers read out the names. And it began to dawn on the men that their work was done.
“It was very moving as the names were sounding out,” Brady said. “Bergoglio, Bergoglio, and suddenly the magic number of 77 was reached.”
The cardinals applauded at 77, and again once the tally was complete. ”I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. A cardinal asked Bergoglio whether he accepted the papacy.
“I am a sinner, but as this office has been given to me, I accept,” he said, according to three French cardinals.
Bergoglio’s reaction—from a kind of somber dread, moving to a humble and peaceful acceptance, almost mirrors Raztinger’s own reaction to the events of the 2005 conclave which made him pope. In a speech to a group of German pilgrims who came to Rome for his installation mass, the newly-named Benedict XVI recounted that,
“When, little by little, the trend of the voting led me to understand that, to say it simply, the axe was going to fall on me, my head began to spin. I was convinced that I had already carried out my life’s work and could look forward to ending my days peacefully. With profound conviction I said to the Lord: Do not do this to me! You have younger and better people at your disposal, who can face this great responsibility with greater dynamism and greater strength.
“I was then touched by a brief note written to me by a brother cardinal. He reminded me that on the occasion of the Mass for John Paul II, I had based my homily, starring from the Gospel, on the Lord’s words to Peter by the Lake of Gennesarate: ‘Follow me!’ I spoke of how again and again, Karol Wojtyla received this call from the Lord, and how each time he had to renounce much and to simply say: Yes, I will follow you, even if you lead me where I never wanted to go. This brother cardinal wrote to me: Were the Lord to say to you now, ‘Follow me,’ then remember what you preached. Do not refuse! Be obedient in the same way that you described the great Pope, who has returned to the house of the Father. This deeply moved me. The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.
Thus, in the end I had to say ‘yes.’ I trust in the Lord and I trust in you, dear friends.” 
Last night, after Pope Francis’ public debut on the balcony of the Vatican, in his words to the crowd (before whom he bowed for several moments in request for their silent prayer), and in the ride to dinner and the events following, this man showed humility, a sense of humor, and perhaps finally a peaceful acceptance of his new and daunting role.
After the address, a car came to take the new pope to dinner, and buses for the rest of the cardinals.
The car returned empty.
“As the last bus pulls up, guess who walked out,” Dolan said.
Francis had dinner with the others.
They toasted him, “then he toasted us and said, ‘May God forgive you for what you’ve done,’” Dolan said.
By the time the night was over, cardinals said, the new pope seemed comfortable in his new robes.
“Last night, I think there was a peace in his heart,” O’Malley said, “that God’s will had been accomplished in his life.”
Pope John Paul II was an extrovert pope—a former actor who seemed to come alive in the spotlight, he was a philosopher who became renowned for deepening our understanding of the human person. In Pope Benedict XVI we had the shy introvert—the renowned Biblical theologian, a man renowned during most of his life—from his time at the university, then as doctrinal advisor to the Vatican, and finally as holding the office of St. Peter—as a teacher able to synthesize deep truths from seemingly disparate times and places into a beautiful and clear whole. With Pope Francis’ status as a Jesuit (an order founded by St. Ignatius, a former soldier who brought his military discipline to bear on the interior, spiritual battle), his MA in Science, his Latin American heritage, and his taking of the name “Francis” (out of the devotion he shares with St. Francis for the poor) one already gets the sense of a papacy destined to have its own character—perhaps distinct from any preceding. A Jesuit priest or brother is never allowed to seek office, but occasionally an office will seek a Jesuit. This week, an office of the Catholic Church has sought a Jesuit in a way like never before—and brought us not only our first Jesuit pope, but our first Pope Francis.
Was the Holy Spirit, in the moments leading up to the conclave decision, enjoying a moment of humor between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity: “NO ONE expects an Argentinian Jesuit Pope!”? I would certainly not care to go on record as speculating on the ways of dialog and humor within the Holy Trinity—most especially, as to whether Monty Python references are ever made. (Even the question as to the nature of humor, when removed from the bounds of temporal time, remains far above my current pay grade.)
All in all, it is an exciting time to be a Catholic. For in the middle of this desert of Lent, we have been the sudden gift of a brilliant bouquet of flowers—wrapped of course, in austere, Franciscan burlap.
 Excerpt from Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press: 2006)