A Conclave is No Place to Shoot Craps.


2:58 PM 8/1/2016 — One might be tempted to think that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, being the first such instance in centuries, would give the Church a unique and valuable opportunity to choose a successor with care, knowing well in advance when the Papacy was going to become vacant; far better than scrambling to organize a conclave and travel arrangements for cardinal electors after a sudden and unexpected papal death, which is usually the case. I said “one might be tempted to think,” but I am not that one.
     My memories are vivid of the sudden death of Pope John Paul I. It had only been thirty-three days since the previous conclave had elected him to succeed Pope Blessed Paul VI, and no one thought another conclave would have to be organized and pulled off again so soon. After the hastily organized conclave had elected Karol Józef Wojtyła, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow, as the new pope, breaking all nationalistic traditions, some of the remarks of the cardinals who had participated were quite interesting. One, in particular, I remember very clearly: it was in response to a question by a reporter who had inquired about what sorts of things the cardinals had debated about in the conclave. Naturally, the cardinal couldn’t answer, having taken an oath to keep the proceedings secret forever, but he did manage to correct the premise of the reporter's question: “There aren’t any debates in a conclave,” he said. “The conclave is not a deliberation, it’s an act of worship. We don’t choose the pope, God does.”
     This is why I’m not one of those tempted to see in the planned resignation of a pope an opportunity; rather, I see it as a danger, and a danger that has been played out.
     I’m not sure if I’m the only one, but I’m sure I’m the only one I know who had misgivings about what happened just prior to and immediately after Pope Benedict's resignation. The cardinals gathered, they had meetings, they presented papers, they met in small groups and had large conferences, all covered in nauseating detail by the Holy See Press Office, some of it even televised; and, they promised to continue all these discussions in the conclave itself. For the first time, the cardinals would not be "locked up" in the Sistine Chapel and adjacent rooms, but would live in the Casa Santa Marta, the hotel/residence for clergy visiting Rome on Church business, and would commute each morning to the conclave. This conclave, Father Lombardi announced, was going to be "thoughtful." And all I could think about was what was said by that one forgotten cardinal coming out of a conclave thirty-five years earlier: “The conclave is not a deliberation, it’s an act of worship. We don’t choose the pope, God does.” It reminded me of something regarding the interior life that Cardinal Ratzinger once said a few months before he became pope: that the goal of the Christian life is to “get out of God’s way,” to submerge ourselves so that we become Christ living and acting through us, as John the Baptist said: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3: 20 NABRE).
     The moral of the story: when man gets out of the way and lets God do it, God gives us saints like John Paul II. When man decides to go it alone, we’re just rolling the dice.