Thoughts on the Beginning of the Conclave

Not only has this been an interesting winter for me with San Diego Hospice, it’s also been an interesting winter for the Catholic Church.

On February 11, 2013 Pope Benedict XVI announced he would resign his position on February 28th. It’s not entirely without precedent but it hasn’t happened since 1415. In that year Gregory XII resigned to end a schism where three different men claimed to be Pope. We have to go back to 1294 and Celestine IV to find the last pope to resign for personal reasons. Celestine was, in his heart, a monk who was not suited for the job; he spent the last two years of his life living as a hermit.

There are some parallels to Benedict. He was elected in 2005 shortly after the death of John Paul II and was, frankly, not ever well suited to the job. Benedict is a scholar and theologian, not an administrator or the public face of the Church. It doesn’t take much to see how these last 8 years have taken a toll on him.

It’s also been devastating to his health. We have learned that he had a pacemaker and had gone blind in one eye. His increased weakness and decreased stamina prevented travel and made day to day administration virtually impossible. I believe he made the responsible decision to pass the torch. I’ve always been concerned about the possibility of a pope’s resignation out of fear that a good but unpopular pope would be pressured to resign. On the other hand we’ve seen in the last century that it’s possible to be very sick, and even nonresponsive, for a long period of time. In 2006 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and has not been able to effectively communicate since. Since there is procedure for replacing a prime minster but not a pope this would have been unprecedented had it happened to Benedict.

And so the Church moves on. On Tuesday the eligible Cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel and choose the next pope. There are lots of people making predictions, but I was so completely wrong last time that I won’t try again. What should we look for in the next pope? That consensus is easy:

  • He needs to be an able administrator. Never before has the Roman Curia been so faithful to Jesus’ command of Matthew 6:3 that we not let our right hand know what the left is doing. The highest offices of the Church operate like silos don’t know what the other offices are doing, let alone cooperate. No organization works well if the oarsmen are not rowing in the same direction.
  • He needs clean hands on the issue of pedophilia. The scandal has enveloped the Church in the US, and to a lesser extent Canada and Europe and healing can’t happen if its leader has a history of covering up. Think it’s not that bad? One of the cardinals of the conclave, Roger Mahoney is my exhibit A. In a story in last month’s Los Angeles Times it was reported that Fr. Jose Ugarte sexually abused a boy and then prayed the prayer of absolution (given by a priest at the end of the sacrament of confession). He was sanctioned by Mahoney, not for the abuse of the victim, but for the abuse of the sacrament.
  • He needs to be someone who embraces the 21st Century. Both John Paul and Benedict came of age in the middle of the 20th Century during the Nazi occupation of central Europe and this dramatically informed their view of the Church in the world. Much as their countries (Poland and Germany) were under siege by evil forces in the 1940s, they saw the Church under attack for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately they often saw the attackers as fellow Catholics in search of a progressive understanding of the Church in the world. The Church will live its best future with a leader who embraces the creative spirit of the Holy Spirit and take seriously the Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). This is perhaps the best argument for looking beyond Europe for the next pope.

The College of Cardinals needs and deserves our prayers.

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