Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Papal Conclave Begins: The Holy Spirit Guides the Church

The Sistine Chapel, from the outside. The
inside is quite a bit more distinctive.
In recent days I have found it difficult to write. So many experts, reporters, and analysts have had things to say, and I am grateful for their work, although reading all of it sometimes only made me uneasy and anxious. This is not to say that I haven't learned some important things, and discovered much about the good work that many are doing in the Church. I have also made my share of jokes (and will, no doubt, continue to make jokes, because true humor is an expression of reverence and affection).

But above all, the approaching moments are a time for recollection, and for drawing close in prayer to our brothers the Cardinals and the one among them who will follow in the footsteps of St. Peter

I am awake in the very early hours of the morning. This is not unusual for me. This morning, however, I hope to participate--in physical distance but electronic proximity--in the Mass soon to begin in Rome, the special Mass for the Election of a Supreme Pontiff offered by the Cardinals before they enter the silence of the Sistine Chapel. There they will choose, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the next bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter, servant of the servants of God.

The "Conclave" is both mysterious and human. These are men, and they are choosing a man. Popes are not gods. This election does not transform someone into a semi-divine being, an all wise, all knowing being who possesses perfect judgment, to whom the rest of us submit like slaves. As Benedict XVI said, "the Pope is not an oracle."

Still the Pope is a man who is a bishop, who in assuming the office of St. Peter will stand out from among his brother bishops, the men who are the successors of the eyewitnesses of Jesus, those twelve who were empowered and commissioned by Jesus to gather the human race into a communion of persons who share His risen life. A communion of persons who become a "people," the People of God, gathered together in a visible, historical community.

This is mysterious. A two thousand year old historical community, whose members have through the ages done all the evil things that humans do, but who still endure and witness to the beginning of God's victory in the world, the beginning of a new creation. It is an historical community that points to Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, and says, "We are together because of Him."

The Pope and the bishops who are in union with him have an office within this community: an authority which is a service and a profound responsibility. The Pope is not "god" or "emperor" or "dictator;" he is "papa," daddy, a man who is called to exercise the role of father in the great family of the Church.

It is not surprising that all of us are drawn to an intimacy and affection for the man who is Pope. The Church is a communion of love; it is the people brought together by the love of God in Jesus, and it reaches out to every human being. We look to the Pope, we have confidence in his guidance, and we follow him not because we think he is magic, or that his every word is divinely inspired.

We follow the Pope, listen to him, and learn from him because of our confidence that the Holy Spirit guides the Church. The Holy Spirit will not allow him to fail in his teaching on the fundamental realities--faith and morals--which sustain each of us in our vital relationship with Jesus, and with each other. Jesus Himself has given this promise to St. Peter, for the building up of His Church (see Matthew 16:6). Beyond this, we are also attentive to and recognize the unique value of the whole of the Pope's preaching and witness. We trust that the Holy Spirit will guide him and sustain him as an authority and a reference point for what is good for the Church, and good for the world.

And so we pray now, and we ask the Spirit of the Father and His Son Jesus to guide the Cardinals, we pray with joy and hope and confidence because we know that God loves us, God loves the Church, God loves the world and every person in it.

This is the secret of the fascination that people (even non-Christians) have with the election of a new Pope. We are awaiting a gift from God.