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Andreas Widmer Headshot

Conclave: Prayer Meeting or Political Rally?

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The news is rife with speculation on who will be the next pope. Names, photos, and biographies are on every major religious and secular program. Discussions about the conclave are happening as if some strange, arcane rite is about to unfold. Experts are offering opinions based on a set of criteria that for the most part in no way actually predicts who the next pope will be. Here's why:

The pope is chosen based on faith and reason. It's not a chess game. It's not about power. Pope is not a position that people aspire to the way they do President or CEO.

Being pope is not your average job. It's actually not technically a job, it's a vocation: You don't just decide to do it; you're called to do it. Nor is being pope an easy position. The world closely watches and analyzes every move the pope makes, every word he speaks. Everyone judges the pope based on his or her own perspective and agenda. Standing in the fisherman's shoes is all consuming.

The Catholic Church faces tremendous challenges and storms over the next 20 years. The new pope will have to turn challenges into opportunities and harness the wind from the storms to guide this ship further toward its ultimate destination. But doing so will come at great personal cost: stinging criticism from the extreme left and right within the Church and politics, war with the dictatorship of relativism and an existential struggle with the culture of death, run ins with political correctness, battles with consumerism and getting the cold shoulder from a world of apathy and nihilism. That's the job description of the next pontiff. Any takers?

My sense from having lived in the Vatican and of the Cardinals who I met is that not one of them actually wants to be pope. It is certainly much easier to be a cardinal than it is to be pope.

A prelate explained to me as a young Swiss Guard that one of the reasons why popes change their names when assuming their ministry is that their previous life is over: Whoever is chosen to be the next successor of Peter will start a new life and, as Jesus told Peter in John 21:18, will be taken where he does not wish to go. My experience of the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI reinforces that insight.

The strong media interest in who the next pope will be is for the most part a good thing. It is a testimony that the world is still interested in God, faith and the Church. This is a teaching moment. There isn't a paper or news site in the world that isn't talking about what the Church needs from the next pope and who could end up being that person. That debate is great!

The key danger in getting the story wrong is for a journalist or observer to look at the process of the conclave from a purely secular perspective: Voting in the Sistine Chapel is not akin to a political election. There are no "campaigns" in the conventional sense. Everyone who votes is also a candidate. Catholics believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26) and that when the Cardinals vote their conscience in this process, the resulting choice is understood to be the will of God.

I arrived at the Vatican as a young Swiss Guard with a largely secular understanding of Catholicism, which was my parent's Faith but not yet truly my own. This "outsider" view was both helpful and deceiving. On the one hand, I was able to meet John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger without any preconceived notion. Their impressions on me were not filtered through my perception of their office but purely based on a human level. What I found distorted my view is to simply see things in secular terms. It did not occur to me until after a deeper conversion to my Catholic faith that John Paul's part in the defeat of Communism was not driven by politics but by his belief in our God-given human dignity. The same sacred dignity he later defended from the onslaught of consumerism and crony-capitalism. The two perspectives fought communism together, but their reasons could not be more divergent.

The same caveat applies to the conclave. In order to understand and interpret what the Cardinals say and do, we must first grasp who they are. The men who go into a conclave have given their lives to the Church. They hold and live the faith. To them, the Church is not a political organization, but the very Body of Christ.

Being the pope is not a question of power, it is a question of responsibility: The pope is responsible for the more than a billion Catholic souls he shepherds. He is relied upon to guard the faith from error and heresy. Ultimately he is tasked with holding the Church together. And for that, he's not accountable so much to his peers as he is to God. No one wants this job for power. There's only a few who are willing to accept it if they feel God calls them to it.

A conclave is preceded by "general congregations," meetings during which the Cardinals discuss with each other what the key needs are of the Church, and during which they invite "outsiders" (non Cardinals and Cardinals over the age of 80) to give their opinions as well. These meetings happen alongside many Masses and prayers during which the participants pray for guidance and clarity. It helps to understand their approach if you think of their efforts more in terms of finding out who God has already chosen, rather than coming up with a candidate themselves. What happened before this time - both in Rome and elsewhere, has in my opinion less influence on the outcome than what happens during that crucial time of prayer and reflection.

I believe that it was Cardinal Ratzinger's "dictatorship of relativism" homily that caused his brother Cardinals to see in him the possible future pope rather than his previous work in Rome. His homily verbalized what many of them (and many of us) felt for some time and I presume made up many a Cardinal's mind and heart as to who to vote for.

It is worthwhile to keep in mind that the Cardinals see the conclave more as a prayer meeting than an election event. But that does of course not stop us from speculating who'll emerge as the new pope when it's all said and done. This analysis is helpful, and the speculation even exciting, though it is unfortunately too easy (and too frequent) to present the conclave as one would a presidential election. The accuracy of such predictions speak for themselves.

I can't think of anyone back in 1978 listing Karol Wojtila as even a possible contender. The last conclave was a bit better. At least the eventual pope was on "the list."

Cardinal Ratzinger was certainly mentioned as a possibility in 2005, but often as the last one listed and with a kind of "not likely" overtone (NYT and Washington Times). Some of the top Vatican observers did not even list him (John Allen/NCR).

All that history just reinforces the Roman saying that someone walking into the conclave as a "Pope" is sure to leave it as a cardinal.

I am not saying that there is nothing involved in electing a pope that resembles politicking. After all, Catholics believe that grace builds on nature. But too many analysts ignore the grace part of it which is regrettable, even misleading. A papal election is based on faith and reason according to the beautiful Catholic concept of "both-and" rather than the secular either-or.

A friend who served as a Swiss Guard during the conclave that elected Blessed John XXIII told me that no one expected that outcome. As a matter of fact, when he stood guard outside the Sistine Chapel when the new pontiff emerged, he thought this was a trial run, given the fact that the man that wore the famous white papal cassock was not one of the Cardinals that everyone expected to be elected. And because the cassock did not really fit all that well.

Any analysis that precedes the conclave contributes to the reason part of it -- the conclave itself will add the critical and final faith aspect of it. The term "election" is thus misleading to a 21st century ear. The election of a new pope is an effort in seeking to find God's will, not the majority opinion.

Around the Web

Papal conclave - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Conclave

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Conclave - Merriam-Webster Online

Pope Moves Up Start Of Conclave; British Cardinal Resigns Amid ...

Conclave - Cooperative Web RPG

Can a Voting Cardinal Skip Papal Conclave? - ABC News