As we’ve heard repeatedly since the momentous announcement of February 11, a new pope is soon to be elected by 115 cardinals in a conclave in the Sistine Chapel. Locked outside, the world can only watch and wait for the white smoke that signals an election. Who will it be – Scola? Ouellet? Ravasi? Turkson? Tagle? Scherer? One day in March we will have the answer to that question. There is, however, another question not so easy to answer, one that is sometimes asked, the question of who actually selects the pope. Is it the cardinals who select the pope through the voting process, or is it God Himself? Put another way, does God the Holy Spirit cause the cardinals to elect the man whom God has already chosen to fill the office of Supreme Pontiff?
The latter option, truthfully, is the version I prefer. As cardinals with their own agenda cast ballots for a man whose future actions will obscure rather than magnify the Lord, the Omnipotent One stretches forth His mighty forefinger and stirs the chalice containing the ballots. Another candidate, one more worthy of the office, is elected, and the cardinals are left scratching their heads. “I could have sworn our man had a majority…” they grouse. Sorry, cardinals! Yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen….
We know that the Holy Spirit is undoubtedly involved in the election. Blessed John Paul II, in his Universi Dominici Gregis (On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff), said as much. He decreed that the conclave should continue to be held in the Sistine Chapel, where “everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in whose sight each person will one day be judged” and where “the electors can more easily dispose themselves to accept the interior movements of the Holy Spirit.” According to this statement, God the Holy Spirit is definitely at work during the election. But the question remains: Does God Himself choose the pope?
A prominent German theologian weighed in on this back in the 1990s. A quotation from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has popped up on many blogs over the past two weeks. The interview from which the quote was taken took place in 1998 (not in 1997, as is floating around on the Internet) and was conducted by the late August Everding, German opera director and fervent Catholic, (you can watch the interview here – it is so good to see a much younger Ratzinger laughing and chatting with his fellow German! The passage in question begins at 37:20. The transcript is here – click on “Herunterladen” to download). The translation going around online is a paraphrase, and a very beautiful one at that. Here is my more literal translation as I understand Ratzinger’s words (take this with a grain of salt – I defer to anyone who feels he or she can translate this more competently! I just thought it would be fun to take a crack at translating this.)
Everding asked Cardinal Ratzinger if he really believed that the Holy Spirit was instrumental in the election of the pope. The cardinal answered:
I wouldn’t say that in the sense that the Holy Spirit chooses any particular pope, because there is plenty of evidence to the contrary (he laughs as he says this) – there have been many whom the Holy Spirit quite obviously would not have chosen! But, that He does not altogether relinquish control, but rather like a good trainer keeps us on a very long cord, so to speak, allowing us a great deal of freedom, but never unfastening the cord – that’s how I would put it. It needs to be taken in a very broad sense and not as if He says, “You’ve got to pick this one!” What He allows, however, is limited to that which cannot completely ruin everything.
The pithy, elegant paraphrase puts it thus:
“I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that He dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance He offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”
Whichever way you like it – THIS IS HUGE. NEWS FLASH:
Fallible human beings are picking the next pope!
Lord, have mercy!
The only assurance is that the thing cannot be totally ruined? Oh, dear….
Yes, of course, the gates of Hell will not prevail, but some of those medieval popes did live as if they believed that Hell HAD prevailed. Certainly no pope, no matter how dissolute, has ever taught error – the Holy Spirit has prevented that as Jesus promised. Jesus, however, never promised that any of us would be prevented from committing sin if we insisted on it, and the sinful lifestyles of those dissolute popes helped to provoke the monumental schism that is still shaping the circumstances of our lives nearly 500 years later! With this in mind, one thing is certain: The election of the next pope matters; it matters desperately. And you, – yes, YOU! – have a role to play in that election.
What we are discussing here is the mystery of prayer. God wants us to have a holy pope, a wise pope, a courageous pope, a pope filled with the Holy Spirit Who is Love. Are we Christians just to assume that, of course, it will be done? On the contrary, God waits for us to pray for this. We have been commanded to pray that it will be done: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
It isn’t automatic.
Pray. Fast. Offer up your suffering, so that the electors “can more easily dispose themselves to accept the interior movements of the Holy Spirit.” Our cardinals in conclave need wisdom, they need light, they need grace. Long after they have gone to meet the One “in whose sight each person will one day be judged,” the Church will be living under the influence of the man they choose. Pray a novena to Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, asking her to add her prayers to ours that the cardinals might be given the grace to choose wisely. Invoke the assistance of Blessed John Paul II, the saint who knows better than any other what it is like to lead the body of Christ on earth in the 21st century!
Pray that God’s will be done in the conclave!
Because when they make that declaration that we’re all waiting for: “HABEMUS PAPUM!” – it isn’t over!
It is just beginning!
On the memorial of St.
Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Exterior of the Sistine Chapel by Maus-Trauden