This week, the Cardinal electors of the Catholic Church enter conclave to elect a new pope. During this time they will be separated from the outside world. Without TV, radio, newspapers, phones or computers they will hear no news and have no contact with their friends and family.
As we struggle to make our own life choices and daily decisions, we too are surrounded by many voices that clamour to be heard. These often well-intentioned influences offer opinions about what we should or should not do. But these voices have little knowledge of our heart’s desire or our best interests. Perhaps the silence of the conclave offers more helpful surroundings in which to make a good choice?
For almost eight centuries, the Catholic Church has provided the Cardinals with a peaceful and reflective environment as they choose a new pope. The idea of the conclave (literally with a key) was a response to the unhelpful influences and pressures that limited the freedom of cardinals in the late middle ages.
It is for this reason that the conclave’s retreat-like environment is chosen for this important task. The stillness and silence enables the participants to be more aware of the key factor of the conclave. The conclave factor is God.
It seems that God does not miss an opportunity to move with power and creativity whenever people gather with a desire to be sensitive to the deepest stirrings of their own hearts. While God does speak to us through the many voices that surround us, in the end, it is the individual person who must make their own decision on each matter.
Maybe many people would be happier today if they had refused to settle for the decisions forced on them by family and friends? Would we all not be better off at times if we had aimed higher than the prevailing peer-group pressures and fashions.
The secret gathering of cardinals does show some trace of democracy. There is an election. The candidate polling two-thirds becomes pope. But this mark of democracy is more of a shadow since the cardinals, at their best, are not seeking to make a simple democratic decision.
Our desire is that they will emerge from all shadows to dwell in the light, and so to discern the mind of God.
I’m happy to know this. Our world lives with the consequences of glorified democracy. Recent democratic elections have resulted in leaders who promote war and injustice as a solution to war and injustice. It is true that a democratic process can give more people more say, but too often the result is the government we deserve rather than the inspirational leadership that we need.
While we settle for democracy when choosing leaders for our country and our clubs, we keep a healthy distance from such a limited process in our families and personal choices.
A functioning family will practice the appropriate use of and respect for parental authority. In our work we may consult those we love about whether to take a new job, but in the end we go with what rests most peacefully in the depth of our own heart.
In our relationships we know what our friends may say about the one we love, but once again, for better or worse, it is the heart that we follow. Such heart-felt clarity, at a deeper level than family and societal pressures, is a taste of conclave discernment.
The difficulty is that most of us have unlearned the ability to read or even to see the depth of our own heart. Instead I am driven by my fears and compulsions telling me that my deepest desire is to eat this food, own this house or to spend time with this stranger.
But the human heart has a deeper region. I touch this space in the moments when I am able to move beyond human advice and agenda. In these moments I can hear and know the mind of God.
My presumption in a process of discernment, as distinct from democratic decision-making, is that God has a point of view about the decision I have to make. I know, too, that if I set aside my own agenda, fear and compulsion, I will be able to hear the voice of God in the depth of my own heart. In this holy place I will know if my heart is beating in tune with what I was created for. In this sacred space, any irregularity of beat will echo with discord and clamour.
When we think about it, this does not seem like an easy process. But when we don’t think about it, we engage in such discernment much more than we might imagine.
The cardinals entering the conclave know that the heart of their mission is to hear God’s voice. They rightly presume that God already knows whom he wants to be the next pope.
In these days, Catholics and many others are not simply praying that God will help the cardinals to make a decision Instead we are praying that the retreat environment of the conclave will be conducive to their hearing the promptings of God, and that the cardinals will have the sensitivity to hear this divine voice, and communicate this in their vote.
I have seen the summarized curricula vitae of the cardinals. My own hopes and fears attract me to some more than to others.
However I know that after a month or two I would be unhappy with any people that I chose. The same would be true of a pope simply chosen by the cardinals.
So I’m not prepared to settle for democracy in the process of electing a new pope. I am happy to hear the cardinals who have been interviewed desiring and expecting a more elevated process: their desire to hear the voice of God is not presumptuously ambitious, since such a desire is experienced only when human ambition and presumption are set aside. In this space of humility, the voice of God becomes audible. Here the mind of God becomes tangible.
I am confident that the cardinals will once again give us an example of this discernment in the process of choosing a new pope. What gives me such confidence? I know that the power of the Spirit of God is greater than any human resistance.
When the white smoke announces the end of the conclave, we will (as we have so often in the past) embrace the pope chosen by God, a God who once again uses imperfect, frail and fallible humans as communicators of the heart of God.
I try not to repeat these daily Lenten posts year to year but there are times when the same scriptures pop up annually and I realise that I can’t write it better than I did last year. Today is one such day, not only because of the thought I share but even more in the comments that are added by FFF readers. Today I have left some of last year’s comments helping us to appreciate the power of today’s readings.
The heart of the home in years past was the hearth. It was at the hearth that the family gathered for the warmth and light of the flame and the food that was prepared there. The fire was treated with respect since the same flame which provided energy for the home could just as easily destroy it.
The Israelites in their forty years in the desert were journeying from captivity to freedom, but the struggle of their desert years made them vulnerable to attack from every temptation as today’s first reading continues
A few years ago I discovered the wonderful way that God uses my imagination in my prayer. Such openness to imagination when seeking God does not take us away from reality into fantasy but instead brings me into what is most real and inescapably personal and intimate.