For days now people have continued to ask me: Haven’t the cardinals known for almost a month now that they’d have to elect a new pope? Why haven’t they even set a conclave date yet?
Watching from afar — I’m headed over this weekend — my answer has been: “Listen in a little.” Yes, the cardinals have been talking less in recent days, but even that decision of the cardinals reflects the prayerful intensity of their work.
Since many of the cardinal electors have been in Rome for a little over a week now, they’ve been moving deeper into a communion of prayer and deliberation about the needs of the Church. As much fun as it may be to have “Sweet Sistine” brackets and pundit favorites among the cardinals, the goal of the conclave (and these ongoing pre-conclave meetings) is not to find the celebrity cardinal who will most wow the media. The goal is to discern the will of God. And a world of Catholics join them in prayer (even adopting cardinals).
And it would seem that my papal predictions are a little better than my presidential ones. To folks pressing me on when the conclave would start I have increasingly answered, “I suspect you’ll see action near the beginning of next week.” And so it appears.
I’m aware of an American cardinal or two who does have a return ticket before Palm Sunday — it is in everyone’s practical interest to get this process moving forward. But I rather like the retreat the cardinals have gone into in recent days. It reflects Pope Benedict’s move to a life of prayer. It reflects the seriousness of the moment and the opportunities it presents. It reflects the Christian calling itself: to live life in union with Christ.
As for the “shut down” of the U.S. cardinals this week, there remains misunderstanding about it. As George Weigel explained, it wasn’t the Americans who were talking out of school, but leaks from elsewhere to the Italian media. The Americans were doing a wonderful thing, meeting the media that has amassed on Rome and offering them a window into the life of the Church in renewal. But that the cardinals would opt to “maintain an increasing degree of reserve” isn’t at all surprising. I look forward to the American bishops sharing again after the conclave with a hungry media. As someone who has had the opportunity to experience some of the revitalization of the faith in the Catholic Church today and the integrity of some of these men, I was delighted to see the world taking a look at some of the good news in the midst of uncertainty and pain and sadness.
Cardinal Dolan has been doing his part, filing reports on the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM, and yesterday was no different. He suggested, as others have, that these meetings — during which many cardinals have spoken — might ultimately “expedite” the conclave. And he observed: “It [is] Lent, the time we recall the dying and rising of Jesus. And we’re sort of going through that as a Church, as the world watches.” He reflected, “the Church is ‘dying’ as we kind of mourn the passing of a beloved pope. As we ‘die’ to what we recognize are some of the scandals and sins in the Church that we’ve always had [but] that are particularly under scrutiny now. And then — as we’ll rise to a renewed life at Easter,that’s what Lent is about, but also with the arrival of a new pope — there’s always a sense of renewal and hope that comes in.”
It was an unexpected Lenten reflection the pope gave the world by resigning — I rather prefer the word “unexpected” to “abrupt.” It was not a matter of “quitting,” but of leading and inviting us to a necessary retreat to prayer and reality: that this world is hurting and in need of healing; that those of us who claim to be Christian aren’t always helping but adding to the pain; and that our eternal destiny, even as we seek to build the Kingdom of God here, is not here. The ultimate goal is not position and power or even success but faithfulness.
And so, even with the uncertainty, there is hope. Because the hope offered us doesn’t rely on any one man or any one act; we believe victory has already been won. That, ultimately, is what this interregnum period this Lent is about.
By the way: Have you read Evangelical Catholicism? Get a little bit of it in my conversation with George here and get a sense of the challenges facing the next pope here. I wouldn’t recommend this book so much and so enthusiastically if it didn’t capture this hinge moment in history so well. The choices the Catholic Church makes — and that every individual Catholic makes daily — affect more than just Catholics. We all live in a community, so I know there are ecumenical prayers for this moment, also.
UPDATE: Some Lenten reflections from an American cardinal. And we have a date.