As the cardinals gather to elect the next Bishop of Rome and Successor of St. Peter, it is time to reflect on what this event means to the world and to us personally as Catholics.
A conclave has always intrigued a waiting world, with its legitimate secrecy, seriousness and drama. Men dressed in red processing prayerfully into the Sistine Chapel, heavy doors locked in their wake, folded ballots placed singularly atop a gold plate before dropping into a large urn, results counted, a specified majority verified. Then all related papers promptly burned, white smoke, Latin proclaimed from the high center balcony in St. Peter’s Square: “Habemus papam!” We have a pope! A new pontiff blesses the multitudes. The entire process never ceases to capture even the most faithless of imaginations.
Yet a conclave isn’t simply high-profile pageantry. It is a universal opportunity to learn about a true treasure shared by the Catholic Church. A new pope emerges from a conclave with more than a new name. His cardinal brothers have entrusted him with an extraordinary responsibility – to witness to the entire world, with humility, the teachings of Christ and the traditions of the apostolic Church. It is, in short, a model sacrifice of love for Love.
Appropriately, as conclaves cause change, conditions and conduct for conclaves have changed a bit within modern memory. The long mourning period before beginning a conclave need no longer apply for a papal vacancy caused by resignation. More cardinals arrive to Rome from geographical distances once unimagined. Greater numbers of cardinals are “young” enough to participate. Cathedral bells also now ring together with rising rings of white smoke to signal a selection.
A conclave can also cause change us inside, too. In an interview with the Catholic News Agency, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., compared a conclave to “a very, very strong, heavy retreat” with the Holy Spirit as director. Such words could and should radiate far beyond the Sistine Chapel. Appropriately, as the journey of Lent once again brings the Body of Christ to the threshold of Holy Week, the conclave calls for our prayers and petitions. It summons spiritual support to the cardinals, to be sure, but also proposes Christ to the world as the path to authentic, eternal life.
Tune out temptations this week to gossip about what will happen within the conclave. Seek instead to take the time to convene a “conclave” within yourself, where guidance arrives by the tiny whisper of the Holy Spirit. With Him, recall not just sorrow for your sins but consider the eternal joys of the saints. Gaze upon the crucifix and find the source of everlasting life. And, with your inventory of faith complete, emerge from your personal “conclave” forged with new hope, radiant with an enriched faith, and as a humble witness to a world that desperately needs the love found in friendship with Christ.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas.