It is no surprise that the Catholic and non-Catholic media are buzzing at a fevered pitch concerning the upcoming Conclave. The situation is truly unprecedented for the Church and I must admit to a certain unease about the whole thing. Not only about the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, but also about the stories of corruption, scandal and intrigue in the highest places in the Church. In addition, the various “white smoke tickers” and other technological wonders designed to alert you to the very moment that the Sacred College decides on who will be the next Roman Pontiff. It all seems surreal and contrived.
I was privileged to spend the final moments of the last two papacies near or in front of Our Blessed Lord. When John Paul II died, I was in the Army and in the D.C. area for a legal conference. I decided to make a visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. While I was there, reports were coming in that the Pope’s death was imminent. Given the circumstances, the then-Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, offered Mass at the Basilica at an impromptu time. Shortly after the Mass ended and the crowds dispersed, the report came in that the Holy Father died. I was still at the Shrine, having grabbed a cup of coffee in its cafe. When I heard the news, I made my way to the main church and the Shrine to Our Lady of Czestochowa and lit a candle and prayed for the repose of the soul of our beloved Pontiff. It was an odd feeling as the See of Peter was vacant. We were without a captain.
Eleven days ago, I was privileged again to be close to Our Lord in the final moments of a Pontificate–this time of Benedict XVI. Having been invited for what may have been the last Mass in St. Paul, Minnesota that included the words “pro famulo tuo Papa nostro Benedicto.” It was an intimate Mass in Latin with several very dear friends. When the Mass ended in the little chapel, we looked at our watches–3 minutes left in the papacy of Benedict XVI. We lingered there for a bit until the See became vacant. To say it was not emotional would be a lie. Yet, at that moment, I motioned towards the Tabernacle and commented to my friends that Our Lord was still here.
I felt rather calm and unaffected until I walked outside. It was the first few moments of the Apostolic See being vacant. The day was grey and cold, and the bells of the Cathedral of Saint Paul were tolling mournfully to mark the end of the Pontificate. The world suddenly seemed different; this time the man who occupied the Chair was still alive, but he was not the Pope. Again, we were without a captain. I called my bride of 14 years, pregnant with our eighth child. She was crying on the phone, having seen moments earlier the Swiss Guards take their leave of Castel Gondolfo–indicating that there was no pope present to guard and protect. We couldn’t converse.
Since that day the prognosticators, the ignorant papal watchers, the enemies of the Church, faithful bloggers and the game-like atmosphere of “papal apps” and “Sistine Chapel cams” have made the whole very sacred duty of the Church’s Princes seem more like a political contest. That coupled with an ever increasing secularism and outright hostility to the Church and the knowledge of the Report of Cardinals Tomko, Herranz and De Giorgi–possibly indicating corruption at the highest levels of the Church–makes this Conclave unlike others in the last century. Add to that the thoughts of at least one Cardinal elector who told Catholic journalist Robert Moynihan “It is a dangerous time. Pray for us.” In this atmosphere, my mind doesn’t wander to the so-called prophesies of St. Malachy, it rather goes toward the image of Christ that will be before the Cardinal Electors; it goes to the words of the Dies Irae which proclaims the Final Judgment of Our Lord, “cum vix justus sit securus” (“when scarcely even a just man is secure”); and it turns to Our Lady.
Perhaps instead of focusing on the apps, the cams, and the first reports from the bloggers we can humbly enter our churches in the next few hours and days and humbly and quietly pray to Our Lady under her title of Mater Ecclesiae, to guard and protect the Church. Perhaps we can unite our prayer with those of the communion of saints in the Latin words of the most ancient prayer to Our Lady; it would be most fitting especially as we pray for the Cardinals in their sacred duty in electing the Roman Pontiff:
Sub tuum praesidium
Sancta Dei Genetrix.
Nostras deprecationes ne despicias
in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.
Under thy protection
we seek refuge,
Holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions
in our needs,
but from all dangers
deliver us always,
Virgin Glorious and Blessed.
And in doing this we will be faithful to our sacred duty.