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Pope John Paul II was buried on 8 April 2005. In the nine days between his funeral and the sealing of the conclave to elect his successor, the critics and enemies of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger worked feverishly to prevent his being chosen pope. The Sunday Times went trolling for stories contrasting Ratzinger-the-Hitler-Youth with heroic Karol Wojtyla, Polish resistance fighter against Nazism and communism. La Repubblica, the flagship daily of the Italian Left, spun fanciful tales about a "German-American coalition" capable of blocking Ratzinger's election, not least by appealing to Third World cardinals whose dioceses depended on German financial support. These at times risible media efforts at electoral preemption had at least the tacit support, and in some cases the encouragement, of progressive Catholic activists, intellectuals and prelates for whom the idea of "God's Rottweiler" as pope was the nightmare that dared not speak its name.

Ironically, Joseph Ratzinger spent part of those same nine days in a parallel effort to forestall his own election. A modest man, he nonetheless knew that his brilliant performance as Dean of the College of Cardinals - leading the cardinals in their deliberations after John Paul's death and leading the world in prayer at his funeral - had made him the odds-on favourite to be the 264th successor to St Peter. And he wanted none of it. He had planned to submit his resignation to the new pope and to demand its acceptance. Thrice before he had retreated when he had tried to resign and John Paul had asked him to stay. Now he was determined to return to his native Bavaria to take up housekeeping with his older brother, a priest and distinguished choirmaster. He would turn 78 two days before the conclave was immured. It was time to go home and pick up the threads of the scholarly life he had sacrificed on becoming archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977.

How does a papal frontrunner work against his own election, particularly if he actually means it and is not simply making an outward show of humility or diffidence? Ratzinger's case against Ratzinger was simply put: "I am not a man of governo, of governance," he said, in each of the half-dozen languages he speaks fluently. Don't do this to me; don't do this to yourselves. Those who were forwarding his candidacy - men like George Pell of Sydney, Christoph Schönborn of Vienna and Angelo Scola of Venice, three of the Catholic Church's most impressive younger leaders - replied, in so many words, "Why don't you let God have his say? Don't prejudge the work of the Holy Spirit." As things turned out, the actual voting was close to a formality, as Ratzinger was elected on the fourth ballot in one of the shortest conclaves in history. Yet there were, evidently, lingering questions among both his supporters and opponents as to whether he would accept the burden he had tried to avoid: in their post-conclave press conference, the German cardinals (who included both supporters and opponents) told reporters that there was a "great collective sigh of relief" when Cardinal Ratzinger accepted his election. That the newly-chosen Benedict XVI remained acutely aware of his own limitations, however, was made unmistakably clear on the morning after the election. Celebrating Mass with the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict asked, in his homily, "Do not deny me your counsel."

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