On Thursday morning I learnt that white smoke was appearing, from a text message sent from England. At first I flicked between television channels. Among Australian terrestrial channels there was a live broadcast from St Peter's Square on Channel 7 Sunrise and on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). I could also get Sky News, Fox News and CNN. The ABC seemed to have the cleanest picture (fewer annoying graphics) so I settled in to that channel. Then they hauled on Paul Collins, Papal historian and ex-priest. Men leave the priesthood for different reasons but my general experience is they are damaged goods. They are not a likely source of balanced and informative comment.
In 2001 Collins resigned from priestly ministry because of a dispute with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over his book Papal Power.
In other words he left in a fit of pique.
So I switched over to Sky News. After the announcement Murdoch's minions made fools of themselves by saying the name the new Pope had taken "was not yet known". Since a nameless Pope is a serious canonical problem (how can he sign anything?) and therefore about as unlikely as one of the Cardinals shinning up the inside of the Sistine Chapel with a can of spray paint, to tag the Creation of Adam – what that probably meant was they had not bothered to revise the formula of the announcement and they did not know that the very last word of the announcement would be (and was) the new Pope's name. Fox News had a similar problem.
I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. Actually it turned out the ABC had got things even more wrong. Their expert – the aforementioned ex-Fr Collins – thought the Cardinals had elected the Archbishop of Genoa. He had the right surname but linked it to the wrong man. The video is still online with hilariously contradictory (and correct) explanatory text. Here is a transcript:
Dr Paul Collins: …[inaudible] announcement.
Cardinal Tauran: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.
Female voice: [inaudible] … Collins tell me, who is the new Pope?
Collins: The New Pope is Cardinal Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Genoa, in Italy, so the Papacy has returned to Italy.
The Archbishop of Genoa is Angelo Cardinal Bagnasco. Given that Collins is Australian you would have thought his ears would have pricked up at the mention of Georgium, as he feared his worst nightmare had come true and the Cardinals had just elected the first Australian Pope. But that fear would have been instantly allayed by the next word Marium. Anyone sufficiently familiar with the names of the Cardinals – that is, anyone hired by a national broadcaster to provide expert commentary on a Conclave – ought to have known who that was. On election night there are people who have encyclopedic knowledge of electorates ("districts" for Seppos, "constituencies" for Poms) and candidates. It is humanly possible to carry that information. Besides technology is a wonderful thing. You could have this on a handheld device. And once the surname is known there was no excuse. It is clear that at this point Collins knew what the surname was.
Female voice: And that is a surprise?
Collins: It is kind of a surprise. He was one of those who was seen as one of the outsiders. But his name was certainly mentioned among, y'know the people who thought they they may kind of break out from Scola and the others whom we've mentioned.
Female voice: He certainly wasn't one of the front runners but this is now after, the first time in thirty-five years the Papacy returns to Italy. This is a very big moment for this country.
"Scola and the others whom we've mentioned". Clearly Collins spent the preceding time not explaining the nature of the Papacy, its historical significance (he was described as a "Papal historian") but speculating on something which a tiny number of Vatican watchers are qualified to do – namely the level of support for given candidates within the College of Cardinals.
Collins: It will be a wonderful moment for the Italians. They'll be really cheering. They'll be very, very happy with this. And, it was very difficult to understand what Cardinal Tauran was saying and it was only when we got it actually here on the screen that I was able to see who it was. So…
Cardinal Tauran's enunciation was very precise. It is possible that Collins was confused by the speakers. In my experience, depending on how they set levels and/or where you are sitting, the loudspeakers in St Peter's Square either let you hear a pin drop or are completely drowned out by the echoes. It would be surprising if Collins did not have headphones. In any case he knew the surname as he got that right immediately. He just pinned it on the wrong bloke.
Female voice: Now we don't have his bio in front of us but he looks like a fairly young man.
Collins: No essentially he's a man in his late sixties, mid to late sixties.
Even if they "don't have his bio", they are obviously looking at something. Collins mentioned "a screen" earlier, so presumably the Vatican Press Office was feeding some information to the media, perhaps a photo and the name on the assumption that they can fill out the rest themselves. If they were looking at their own information, Cardinal Bagnasco was born on 14th February 1943, so he is 70. Pope Francis is 76.
Female voice: That's pretty young in the scheme of things
Collins: It's not too bad! As I said he was, he is the Archbishop of Genoa, now the Bishop of Rome. He comes from a very academic background. He was the President for some time of the Italian Bishops' Conference. He's played a major role, without any doubt, in the Italian Church and has been very influential in the Italian Church. So he's very much a figure from Italy.
Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was born in Argentina. According to Wikipedia his father was an immigrant but his mother (also of Italian stock) was born in Buenos Aires.
Paul Collins' error spread to the ABC site. This article is now correct but an earlier version survived long enough to get to Google.
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