It may be hard to believe that the September 11, 2001 catastrophic tragedy (known among New Yorkers as 9-11) could have led to an unknown Argentine prelate to be elected pope but these facts show the incredible turn of events whereby we now have Pope Francis leading the Catholic Church. Very briefly, these are the facts.

After 9-11, former Cardinal Edward Egan of New York had the task of tending to the grieving community of New York but he had also been charged with serving as the general rapporteur of the 2001 synod of bishops set to begin in Rome on September 30, 2001.

He had basically the role that Cardinal Mario Grech has today, preparing, organising and coordinating with the synod bishops and the pope. In the midst of the tragic events, Egan had asked if he could give the opening report and then return to his shattered community of New York. But Pope John Paul II requested that he stay ,and he reluctantly and obediently remained in Rome. Halfway through the synod, he was eventually given permission to return to New York.

Serving as adjunct rapporteur was a certain Jorge Bergoglio, who had just been created a cardinal in February 2001. Thus, the Argentine cardinal took on greater responsibilities, both publicly and privately, getting him noticed around the Vatican and beyond. Journalists covering the gathering took notice of Bergoglio and he started being known and noticed in Rome as someone papabile.

Bergoglio excels in one-on-one communication and he managed the meeting so well that, at the time for electing the 12 members of the secretary´s council, his brother bishops chose him with the highest vote possible.

Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist, who is the author of Pope Francis: Life and Revolution, claimed that “the synod participants were impressed by his ability to synthesise and express the views of the bishops and that’s why in the 2005 conclave he emerged as the real challenger to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger”.

By 2013, the cardinals were willing to embrace the need for a change in direction- Fr Julian Cassar

Piqué further observed: “It’s interesting to think what would have happened in the history of the Church if 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.” In the 2001 consistory, John Paul II had created a few Latin American cardinals and many pondered at the growing importance of collegial governance and ecclesial discernment.

Synods have always been a means for bishops to get a sense of the universal Church, to think globally, instead of hinting at an insular protection of their own diocese and country. Many of the cardinals who participated in the 2001 synod had been impressed with Bergoglio’s leadership qualities but, in the 2005 conclave, neither Bergoglio nor the Church was ready for him to become pope.

That would begin to change at the 2007 meeting of the Latin American Church at Aparecida, Brazil, where Bergoglio was elected by his brother bishops to chair the important committee charged with drafting the final document.

By the 2013 conclave, the crisis of governance had reached the point where the cardinals were willing to embrace the need for a change in direction. That’s when the Europeans and Latin Americans who knew him suggested Bergoglio to the rest of the College of Cardinals who had barely any knowledge of him.

Following Bergoglio’s surprise election in March 2013, Egan – then retired – reflected back on the role that the then Argentine cardinal took on in 2001. Egan told his Archdiocesan Catholic newspaper Catholic New York: “He began working with us every day. He responded generously, kindly and very competently. He was simply wonderful. I became a great admirer of his. He’s as fine a bishop and priest as anyone could hope for.”

Although Cardinal Egan died in March 2015, just months later, Bergoglio made good on a promise he had made and, in September 2015, made his first visit to the United States, specifically to New York where, as pope, he prayed on the memorial grounds for the victims of the September 11 attacks. It’s amazing how some turn of events can change the course of history!

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