In Roman Catholic parishes all around the world, ordinary priests are fielding questions from the faithful and preparing to shepherd them through the election of a new pope to lead the Universal Church. At the same time, it’s a tumultuous period for them, as the Church to which they’ve dedicated their lives readies to begin a new era in the face of a skeptical media and an often-hostile world.
Father M, 34, was ordained a priest in 2005, the year that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. He works at a parish in a large East Coast city, where he is helping both its adult congregants and the children in its parochial school.
He previously shared his candid thoughts on Benedict’s resignation. By email, he now looks ahead into an uncertain future:
John Paul II was elected when I was a baby, so this is only my second conclave, and my first as a priest. The pastor and I have talked to the school kids about the conclave; I've talked to the Knights of Columbus about it (and thanked them for all the good work the K of C has been doing in prayerfully supporting the process); I try to give little updates on how things are going at the end of Mass.
One thing I’ve done is encouraged people to make use of Catholic media, which is a lot easier now with social media – or, at least, if they’re getting most of their information from the secular media, to take everything with a grain of salt. And not only because a lot of them don’t like what we stand for, and will use any occasion to speak ill of us, since that usually comes across loud and clear – what can be just as difficult is the fact that, frankly, it's difficult to really understand the Church from the outside. You only really understand it through being a part of it, through prayer and the sacraments.
The media, for the most part, covers the Church the way they would politics, scandals or celebrities. I've asked people to get informed then take the time to answer, defend and explain our Church to others.
Most of the questions I’ve gotten, disappointingly though not surprisingly, focus on the externals. What happens to the Pope’s ring? Why are his shoes red – shouldn’t they be white like his cassock? Where does the smoke come from and how do they change its color? What is Castel Gandolfo and why did Benedict move there? Who makes the three cassocks the new Pope will pick from? Things like that.
I’d much rather be fielding more serious questions, like how a particular cardinal might handle curial reform if he became pope, or what Benedict’s most enduring legacy might be. But there’s nothing wrong with people being interested in the trivial elements. The ring, the smoke, the robes – for a lot of people they are interesting, and the fact that they ask questions about them provides the opportunity to talk about the things that are important. It’s not evangelizing outright, but, in its own small way, it can pave the way for more serious questions about the Faith later on.
Social media has really shown me, more so than with the last conclave, is that electing a Pope is not just historically important; it's also a pop-culturally relevant. Adopting cardinals online, signing up for white-smoke text alerts or Pope Alarms, guessing the new pope's name, downloading conclave apps, filling out March Madness Sweet Sistine brackets – it's good-natured fun. We're also lucky to have things like Catholic Memes, or cartoonist Jason Bach, who are able to find things in the Church to joke about without treating the Church itself like a joke. In all, I think the social-media element is a plus, in that it promotes the presence of the Church online in a positive and unobtrusive way.
One big difference is that there's no "Ratzinger" this time. What I mean by that is, there's no one figure that stands out, head and shoulders above the rest. I'd long admired Cardinal Ratzinger, but at JP2's funeral, his homily made such a good impression that, I think, a lot of people's eyes were opened. This humble, thoughtful, gentle, prayerful man was a far cry from the reactionary “Panzer Cardinal” or “Rottweiler” that the press might have caricatured him as. I think even people not paying much attention to everything might have thought, this guy could be the next Pope.
I didn’t think he’d actually become Pope – I thought it would be Cardinal Tettamanzi (and I was fine with that). But then I started seeing certain commentators saying things like, “Well, Ratzinger might seem like the favorite, but he’s too old, too conservative, too this, too that. He’ll fade fast and we’ll get to the real contenders …” They were actually calling him the favorite, and were clearly afraid that he might become Pope. It was only then that I realized this might actually happen. And so I prayed …
So there's no "Ratzinger" figure among the Cardinals. But there may be a "Wojtyla" among them. Not many people outside of Poland knew Karol Wojtyla in 1978. But at the conclave that elected John Paul I, who reigned for only 33 days, Cardinal Wojtyla made a very strong impression on a lot of his brother cardinals. So at the second 1978 conclave, most of the media attention was on Cardinals Siri and Benelli, but I think a lot of the electors went into the conclave thinking, “Maybe God wants Wojtyla?”
So there may be some cardinal nobody in the press is looking at, who has quietly earned the confidence of his brother cardinals, and who will quickly become the consensus. As to whom that cardinal might be, I have no idea.
One thing that I’ve tried to stress is that the cardinals are the ones who do the voting, but that doesn’t mean we’re somehow disenfranchised. It’s, ultimately, the Holy Spirit who runs things, and all of us have direct access to Him.
The pope, as Vicar of Christ, is a spiritual father to the whole Church, and so the whole Church is involved in the selection of his successor. Only the cardinals do the actual voting, but we support them with our prayers.
During the interregnum, instead of praying for the “health, well-being and intentions of our Holy Father the Pope,” as I usually do, I’ve been praying in gratitude for our Pontiff Emeritus, for the discernment of the electors (especially the Cardinal I “adopted” online, Jean-Louis Tauran), and for the humility and fortitude of the as-of-yet unknown cardinal who will leave the conclave as the new pope.
So on Tuesday, I’ll offer the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff here at the parish; I’ll keep praying for my adopted Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran; for the next few days, I’ll have my cellphone handy in case my Pope Alarm text alert goes off, so I'll be ready for the moment when Cardinal Tauran finally steps onto the balcony to announce the name of the new Pope.
He may be one of my favorites (one's American, one's Asian, and I don't think either stands a chance), he may be one of the oft-mentioned papabili; he may be someone I've never heard of.
But whoever he is, he will be the Successor to St. Peter and Vicar of Jesus Christ. We'll have a pope, and that enough is reason to celebrate. We'll ring the bells in the church, and, depending on what time it is, we'll turn on the TVs in the school, so that the school kids can witness history being made. Plus, I've already lined up about half a dozen dinner appointments with fellow priests, with seminarians and with other good friends to celebrate, haha.
St. Joseph's Day and Easter will be special. Hopefully the conclave will be finished in enough time for the installation or inauguration Mass to be held on St. Joseph's Day. St. Joseph is the foster-father of Christ and patron of the Universal Church – the ideal day for the Church to celebrate the gift of our new spiritual father.
Plus, St. Joseph, he's the baptismal patron of Joseph Ratzinger, which I hope would not go unmentioned! And on Easter, the Celebrant of the Mass in St. Peter's Square will be different, but the message will be the same: Christ is Risen!