ROME – A cardinal has broken his vow of secrecy and released his diary describing the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI (search), revealing in an exceedingly rare account that a cardinal from Argentina was the main challenger and almost blocked Benedict's election.
Excerpts of the diary, published Friday, show Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led in each of the four ballots cast in the Sistine Chapel during the mystery-shrouded April 18-19 conclave. But, in a surprise, Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio (search), a Jesuit, was in second place the whole time.
Most accounts of the conclave have said retired Milan archbishop Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (search) was the main challenger to Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI after his election, and that a Third World pope was never realistically in the running.
While Bergoglio never threatened Ratzinger's lead -- and made clear he didn't want the job, according to the diary published in the respected Italian foreign affairs magazine Limes -- his runner-up status could signal the next conclave might elect a pope from Latin America, home to half the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.
The diary of the anonymous cardinal is also significant because it shows that Ratzinger didn't garner a huge margin -- he had 84 of the 115 votes in the final ballot, seven more than the required two-thirds majority.
His two immediate predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope John Paul I, are believed to have garnered 99 and 98 votes respectively, and that was when there were only 111 voting cardinals.
"It does seem that somebody wants to indicate that the conclave was a more complex process than was being depicted and that Benedict's mandate was not a slam dunk," said David Gibson, a former Vatican Radio journalist who is writing a biography of Benedict.
Finally, the diary includes a few surprises, including a vote in the final ballot for Cardinal Bernard Law, forced to resign as Boston archbishop because of the church sex abuse scandal.
And it offers other colorful insights of what went on behind the scenes during the two days the 115 red-hatted princes of the church were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican's Santa Marta hotel to select the 265th leader of the Catholic Church.
Because the hotel prohibits smoking, Portuguese Cardinal Jose Policarpo da Crux would sneak outside for an after-dinner cigar, the diary says. And Cardinal Walter Kasper shunned the minibuses that shuttled cardinals to the Sistine Chapel, preferring to walk by the Vatican gardens instead.
"Sunday, April 17: In the afternoon I took over my room at the Casa Santa Marta. I put down my bags and tried to open the blinds because the room was dark. I wasn't able to. One of my fellow brothers asked a nun working there, thinking it was a technical problem. She explained they were sealed. Closure of the conclave..." the diary begins.
The published diary entries were interspersed with commentary from Vatican journalist Lucio Brunelli, who says he obtained the diary through a trusted source he had known for years. He told The Associated Press he spoke in Italian to his source -- a hint the cardinal in question was Italian.
Brunelli says he couldn't identify the author because of the vow of secrecy each cardinal took before entering the conclave. Punishment for violating the vow is excommunication.
In Buenos Aires, a spokesman for the archdiocese, Enzo Paoletta, said Bergoglio had no comment on the report.
Nothing official is ever recorded from conclaves and the ballots are burned in the Sistine Chapel stove -- ashes that signal to the world through white smoke or black whether a pope has been elected.
As a result, the diary's tallies -- which Brunelli said he confirmed through other cardinals -- are unusual, although previously tallies have leaked out piecemeal.
According to the diary, Ratzinger won 47 votes and Bergoglio 10 on the first round of balloting, while Martini got nine and some 30 others got a few votes.
In round two, Ratzinger edged up to 65 and Bergoglio 35.
By the third ballot, Ratzinger had 72 votes, just five shy of the two-thirds majority needed to win. But Bergoglio got 40, just over the threshold needed to stall the conclave if his supporters wanted to.
However, the diary says Bergoglio made it clear he might not have accepted the job. The cardinal recalls watching Bergoglio cast his ballot: "The suffering face, as if he were begging: 'God don't do this to me."'
Marco Politi, Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica, said if the diary showed anything, it's that outsiders really have no idea what happens during a conclave, since so many of the media's preconceived ideas were proved wrong.
"To know more, we have to wait for other tears in the secret," he wrote Friday.
Gibson speculated the diary's author was Italian and wanted to set the record straight that Ratzinger, a German, didn't have as significant a margin as some had suggested.
"Outside of Italy, Catholics and churchmen have a very kind of mystical view of the Vatican and especially the conclave," Gibson said.
"The Italians have always had a more kind of political view of the process ... for them it's their election, and they're much more comfortable with it, as a human as well as a divine process."