From Rome: Day 2

Good morning from Rome.

It is a bit after Roman 13:00 on Day 2 of the Papal Conclave of 2013. As you undoubtedly know, both ballots were burned at approximately 11:40 a.m. local time (some commentators think that the smoke coming twenty minutes earlier than expected meant something; I am not convinced that there’s a ‘there’ there. And if there were, how could we possibly know what it is?) In any event, the smoke was black. Really black. It is difficult to see on television, but I can attest to the fact that the smoke is, indeed, quite dark and thick; it looks as if the Sistine Chapel is on fire.  Saint Peter’s Square was not packed for the billows, owing mainly to the rain and the remote probability that this morning’s smoke would be white. Even the election of Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 took until the afternoon of the second day and most of the cardinals knew going into the conclave that Ratzinger was the man to beat.

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No such certainty here--that we know of. While this afternoon could bring white smoke, it’s improbable—too much to consider, too many camps. Still, anything can happen and every hour brings us one hour closer to having a new pope. The Roman police have started to create a more secure area around the Vatican and are allowing only commercial traffic down the Via Della Conciliazione, the main thoroughfare leading up to Saint Peter’s Square. Points of entry to the square are now more limited and bags are checked (even if you’re wearing a collar, I’ll have you know: no clerical privilege here!).

A number of people have tweeted me asking about my reaction to yesterday. I found the proceedings very hopeful. It is important to remember that the conclave is a liturgy, a work of prayer, an act of faith. It is a ‘political election’ only in an analogous sense. That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit directly picks the new Pope; he wouldn’t need a college of cardinals if it worked like that. Still, the Holy Spirit is at work in some important way and without a doubt millions of people around the world are calling on him to guide the deliberations of the cardinals.

All that’s related to my second reaction. We have longed believed as a church, as a matter of faith, that the whole church joins in the prayer of the cardinals and, in that way, the election is an action of the whole church. What’s amazing about the modern conclave is that we can not only join our prayers to those of the cardinals, we can do it in real time and then watch the events unfold. That experience is uniquely modern. The age of 140-character communication can lead to isolation and fragmentation. Yesterday, though, was a clear example of how modern technology can also bring us together across barriers of almost every kind. That is undoubtedly a great gift and one that every new evangelist should cherish… and study. 

Lastly, a number of people tweeted me about Cardinal Sean O’Malley, wanting to know a bit more about why people are talking him up here. There are at least five reasons: First, he is a holy, humble man; that is absolutely essential. Second, he has led two dioceses, Fall River and Boston, out of the scandal of sexual abuse and into repentance and reconciliation, more or less succesfully. That’s important since a big job for the new pope will be managing the continuing fall out from this crisis. Also, he was the apostolic visitor to the Archdiocese of Dublin in the wake of the abuse crisis there, so he is familiar with the international dimension of the problem. Third, he is a Franciscan. This is a time of scandal. The church has turned to the Franciscans for help before when she was in trouble. Remember the call that Saint Francis heard: Rebuild my church. Fourth, O’Malley speaks 4 or 5 languages and has very strong ties to the Latin world. His Ph.D. is in Spanish and he was a bishop in the Caribbean. Lastly, he is a New Evangelist in the best sense, the very first Cardinal to have a blog.

Will it happen? It’s improbable, though not impossible. And remember, people were convinced that it was impossible a mere 31 days ago.

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