Understanding the Conclave

Last night, as we sang the Sub Tuum for the Conclave at the end of Vespers, I reflected how little real understanding there is in the media of what a papal election is or means. Those of us who have taken part in abbatial elections or similar acts of chapter probably understand better than many. We know, for example, how carefully one must weigh up practical considerations: is this person equal to the task, will he or she deal with the problems which need to be addressed, are there any weaknesses of body or character which might prove harmful? At the same time, there is an awareness that it is a religious act in which we take part, and we will one day answer to God for the choices and decisions we make. The oath we swear is a solemn one; the responsibility we take on can justly be described as ‘awful’.

To describe the Conclave as a ‘contest’ is therefore to miss the point. Yes, there will be some ‘trading of positions’, attempts to steer the choice in this direction or that according to the cardinal electors’ perception of what the Church needs; but the cardinals are not cynics, they are men who believe they have a duty to perform for the good of the Church. However fallible they may be as individuals, they are entrusted with this work by the whole Church and I think we should assume that they will carry it out with integrity. We need to pray for them, earnestly and perseveringly. We also need to pray for the man who will be pope; as we need to pray for ourselves. The agenda the media think he should address may not be what he, or the Holy Spirit, have in mind. We should prepare to be surprised.

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Preparing for the Conclave

The conclave to elect a new pope begins tomorrow and, as you might expect, we are preparing for it with prayer and fasting. As I’ve said before, the conclave is an act of the whole Church although the way in which we participate differs according to our particular role within the Church. For most of us that means prayer. Prayer isn’t a substitute for the natural processes of discernment, but it is a vital accompaniment. After all, if we want the Holy Spirit’s involvement, it is a good idea to ask: God doesn’t usually force himself upon us!

There is, however, another sense in which we who are Catholics need to prepare for the conclave. We need to make up our minds that whoever is elected will have our love and obedience (in all that is not sin, understood). The pope is not just any kind of leader. For us he is the successor of St Peter, the Vicar of Christ. Whatever his personal sins and shortcomings, his office entitles him to our respect and co-operation. In other words, the conclave isn’t just about the pope: it is also about us.

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