These days of Lent, during which we try to lead ‘lives of surpassing purity’ as St Benedict says, are very precious. This year they are especially so, as we prepare for the papal election and God’s gift of the 266th successor of St Peter. It is easy to forget that every Catholic has a part in this great action of the Church. Inevitably, there will be speculation, some of it shallow or even silly. We all have our own views on what the Church needs or doesn’t need; who might be good and who might not; but none of it matters compared with this simple truth: God’s ideas always exceed our own. Our business is to pray and wait in hope.
The feast of the Chair of St Peter is a celebration of the unity of the Church under its teacher and pastor, the Apostle Peter. Historically, there are two feasts referred to as the Chair of St Peter, one from Rome and one from Antioch, but today most eyes will be turned towards modern Rome, where Benedict XVI is preparing to lay down his office and the cardinals are preparing to elect someone to take it up. Inevitably, the media are full of speculation, some of it so blatantly secular as to make one smile.
One point which seems to elude many is that the election of a pope is not like election to political office. It is not a question of satisfying a popular wish for a candidate to represent a particular ethnicity; nor is it a question of trying to eliminate anyone who might have any ‘scandal’ attached to his name. The Church has survived some amazingly bad popes, as she has survived some amazingly bad members generally. She is, after all, founded on Christ; and there is grace even in the worst of sinners. The electing cardinals do not have to meet any criteria other than being within the age limit currently in place; so all those calls to exclude Cardinal Brady or Cardinal Mahony on the grounds that their record on sex abuse cases is distinctly questionable are, in electoral terms, wide of the mark. I think I am right in saying that even cardinals who have been excommunicated cannot be excluded from the conclave.
That tells us something quite important about the Church and her self-understanding. We really do rely on God acting in and through weak and imperfect beings to bring about the realisation of his Kingdom on earth. We are apt to forget that amidst all our plans for mission and evangelisation. We rely on God and he, astonishingly, relies on us.