Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Cardinals at Prayer

Much seems to be being made about the Cardinals' somewhat novel decision to have a public "Holy Hour" at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica yesterday. Of course, under "normal" circumstances, there would be a public papal funeral and nine days of public formal mourning, during which there would be a public requiem each day. So there is really nothing novel or unprecedented at all about the cardinals praying together publicly prior to the conclave. What is novel and unprecedented, of course, is the special cirumcstance of not  having had a funeral, etc., and having instead a prayer event not prescribed by the sede vacante rules but something specifically planned by the cardinals themselves for this unique interregnum period.
I watched most of the event on TV. The cardinals began by praying the rosary (the Glorious Mysteries) together. Then the Blessed Sacrament was brought to the Altar of the Chair, where it was exposed by the Cardinal Archpriest of St. Peter's. A period of silent adoration followed, after which Vespers were sung, followed by Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Unlike the General Congregations from which the public is excluded, the public was admitted to the Basilica for this event, and it was covered on TV. So, in a very real sense, it was not just the cardinals themselves praying in anticipation of the coming conclave, but the whole Church was invited to be in prayer with them.
For all its ritual and solemnity, the conclave is a very human gathering of 115 leaders of the Church to choose one of their number to be Successor of St. Peter. Someone asked me yesterday if there was some formal nominating process before the actual voting. There isn't, of course. Yet this interim period during which the cardinals meet formally every day in General Congregations and informally in many other ways may in some sense take the place of a nominating process. By that I mean that, in the absence of an obvious front-runner, this is the time when the cardinals are learning about each other and taking the measure of one another. It is also a time when they are examining the issues currently facing the Church and informally discerning a profile of the next pope's mission. 
But, while it remains a very human gathering, it is, like the Church itself, always something more. The Successor of St. Peter is, after all, also the Vicar of Christ on earth. And that, more than any other specific task, remains the heart and soul of the pope's job description. So it is important not only that the cardinals devote themselves to serious prayer at this time, but that they be joined by the rest of the Church, for the election of a pope is a matter of intense importance for the entire Church and so ought to be a concern of all - cardinals, bishops, prelates, clergy, religious, and laity.
The collect of the Votive Mass "For the Election of a Pope" expresses  quite well both the Church's concern and the pope's job descriptionl: O God, eternal shepherd, who govern your flock with unfailing care, grant in your boundless fatherly love a pastor for your Church who will please you by his holiness and to us show watchful care."

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