Wait In Joyful Hope

sede vacanteOn Thursday evening, Pope Benedict XVI will retire.  The Catholic Church will enter into a period called “sede vacante.”  This means “empty seat” and refers to the seat of the Bishop of Rome at St. John Lateran Church in Rome, which is the Pope’s home church.  Every Bishop’s church is a cathedral church because his “cathedra” or the chair signifying his authority as Bishop is within it.  It is the authority of the Bishop of Rome and successor to St. Peter which the Pope invokes when he’s teaching us issues of faith “ex cathedra” or “from the chair” of St. Peter.  That authority comes from Jesus Christ.  But I’m not writing this to defend or explain the authority of the Popes.  If you’re interested in that, you might want to research things like the history of the Davidic Kingdom, the Aramaic language and the Scriptural basis for the papacy.  This is more a reflection on waiting for the Lord.  Before you stop reading (how b-o-r-i-n-g is waiting?) think about how much of your own life is spent waiting.  You wait in line, wait at red lights, you wait for other people.  You wait for the right place and the right time to do or say things.  You may see waiting as just an annoying waste of your valuable time.  But you’d be wrong.  Waiting time is a blessing if you invite Christ to wait with you.
 
This is what the Cardinals of the Catholic Church will be doing when they gather together in conclave to elect the next Pope.  Yes, it’s an election and like all elections, there comes with it a kind of unseemly, “human” side to it, especially looking at the process from the outside.  And unless you’re a Cardinal, we’re ALL on the outside of this, Just watch and read any of the mainstream media and you’ll hear all about it:  conspiracies, self-promotion, false prophecy and secret rituals.  The truth is a lot simpler and less “interesting” to the talking heads, however.  The truth is that the conclave is about prayer and waiting.  The Cardinals (in communion with all the Church) pray to be led by the Holy Spirit to choose the man desired by God to lead His Church.  This doesn’t mean that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel will open, the clouds will part and a sunbeam will fall onto the chosen one.  God is more subtle than that, usually.  Remember that Elijah waited to hear from God and when he did,it was in a gentle whisper (I King 19:11-13).  This wasn’t a Hollywood kind of moment and neither is a conclave.  So how will God lead our Cardinals?
 
Firstly, through the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.  They’ll meet together every day for Mass.  Each Cardinal will spend time in communal and private Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  The men will pray for guidance in the presence of God.  They’ll also continue to pray the Divine Office which is the worldwide daily prayer of the Psalms along with other readings and hymns which, along with the Mass, make up the public prayer of the Church.  Without some of the distractions of daily life they can focus on opening their hearts and minds to do the will of God in electing a new Pope.  They’ll also have time for fellowship with one another.  They’ll share meals and wine and probably a cigar or two.  They’ll enjoy walks in the beautiful Vatican gardens and share conversations and concerns as the conclave unfolds.  Will they discuss the “papabile,” the men thought by some to be the leading candidates for Pope?  Sure.  These guys aren’t immune to human curiosity and speculation.  But God can work through these processes too.  Otherwise nothing in this world would ever be done according to His will.
 
And so, while the Church holds our collective breath during the conclave, there are things we can do to support and encourage our Cardinals.  We can go to Mass and offer our intentions for them and for the man they’ll choose.  We can go to Adoration and offer our holy hour for the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the process.  We can use our Lenten sacrifices in this same way.  When non-Catholic friends ask about the process, we can explain it to them in charity.  And we can offer the Lord our own private prayers for the man whom we’ll soon be calling “Holy Father.”  This is a remarkable time for the Catholic Church and we have faith that the Lord’s promises to those who wait and trust in Him will be fulfilled.  We’re in good company when we wait in God’s love.  Remember Job and Elijah, Noah and David and St. Paul.  Remember how our Blessed Mother awaited the birth of her Son.  I’m drawn to the father of the prodigal son, who waited patiently and hopefully for his wandering child to come home to him (Luke 15:11-24).  His love and faith never wavered.  He held fast.  And when his son returned home to him, there was a huge celebration!  That’s a pretty good model for us to follow.  Let’s wait and pray and never lose faith that God will lead our Cardinals in His grace and love.  Then….we’ll party.
 
“Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted and wait for the Lord.”                                                           –Psalm 27:14

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The Conclave Process

popebenedictThis has been an interesting few days to be a Catholic.  Along with Mardi Gras (party!) and Ash Wednesday (fasting and prayer) we also learned that Pope Benedict is resigning the papacy at the end of February.  The more accurate term is “abdication” since the papacy is a position somewhat akin to kingship.  This hasn’t happened since 1415, so it’s a rather novel process with lots of things yet to be determined.  Over the centuries, all but a handful of Popes have left the office by death.  We remember the 2005 passing of Pope John Paul II—his illness, the crowds gathering in St. Peter’s Square to hold prayer vigils as he slipped away from us, and the announcement of his death from advanced Parkinson’s disease.  When a Pope dies (or in Benedict’s case, abdicates) there begins to unfold a complicated process to elect his successor.  The Code of Canon Law (which is like the Constitution of the Church) details everything involved and who in the Church is responsible for each part of the election.
 
The Cardinals of the Church come to Rome from all over the world and meet in a conference called a “conclave” which is held in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.  Conclave means “with a key” and refers to the face that the Cardinals are locked into the chapel for the voting process.  They used to be locked in night and day until a new Pope emerged.  The longer the voting took, the less food and water was sent in for them.  In one lengthy conclave, the roof of the building they were using at the time was removed to let the Cardinals bake a little under the hot Italian sun.  That sped up their voting, I’m sure.  Today, it’s a little more comfortable.  In the evenings, the Cardinals are lodged in a special dormitory called St. Martha’s House where they’re fed and housed so long as the conclave lasts.  Still, the process is built around electing a new Pope in a timely manner.  The Cardinals will vote up to four times each day by secret ballot.  Before the voting begins each elector takes an oath to faithfully observe the voting process, to maintain absolute secrecy and to disregard any influence on his vote outside his own heart and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  He promises that if he is the one elected, he’ll defend and protect the office of the Pope.  Once the oaths are taken everyone who isn’t voting is ordered out of the Chapel and the door is closed and locked.  The conclave begins.  The room is also swept for any electronic devices and no one is allowed a cell phone.  Many Cardinals use Twitter and Facebook these days, but not during the conclave. 
 
In order to be elected, a man must receive a 2/3 majority of the ballots cast.  The ballots used are simple note cards folded over once, with the words “I elect as Supreme Pontiff_______” printed on them in Latin.  The cards are collected and counted and if no one receives the needed number of votes, the ballots are burned in a special oven.  Dark smoke emerging from the smokestack tells the watching world that no result has come about yet.  White smoke indicates that the election has produced a new Pope.  Since 1963, chemicals have been added to insure the smoke is white but that doesn’t always work.  So since 2005, bells are rung as well to cut down on any confusion. Inside the Chapel, the Cardinal Dean (who oversees the conclave) asks the Pope-elect if he accepts the results of the election.  He can say “no” if he wishes.  If he accepts and is already a Bishop (as all current Cardinals are) he immediately takes office.  If he isn’t already a Bishop he must first be consecrated one.  The office is, after all, the Bishop of Rome. In the chance that a lay man is elected to the papacy (and this is possible) he must first be ordained a deacon, then a priest, and then consecrated as Bishop.  So the Pope can be any baptized male in theory and is not just limited to the pool of Cardinal electors. The next thing that happens is the choosing of a papal name.  Pope John Paul II was named Karol.  Pope Benedict XVI was named Joseph.  Each pope is free to choose a name that holds meaning for him and his pontificate.  Later, the new pope will go alone into a small red room adjacent to the Sistine Chapel called “the room of tears.”  Here he dresses himself in the new white vestments (which are made in advance and are available in three sizes to fit whomever is elected) and prepares to be introduced to the world in his new role.  No wonder the room is known for the tears shed there in joy, responsibility, hope, and probably no small amount of fear and humility as well.  Then he’s led to the main balcony of St. Peter’s facade where we all get our first look at the new Holy Father.  “Habemus Papam!”  We have a Pope!
 
As we journey through Lent, please join me and the entire Catholic Church in praying for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.  His decision to step down has opened the door the election of his successor and we pray for his long life and happy, peaceful retirement.  We pray for all the Cardinals of the Church who will soon gather in Rome to prayerfully choose our new Pope.  And lastly, we pray for the man, known now only by God, who will become the 265th successor to St. Peter, the fisherman.  May he lead us in holiness and faithfulness to the Lord.
 
“And so I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
                                                                     —Matthew 16:18

From Blessing to Burden

glock“Then God blessed them and said,’Be fruitful and multiply.’ “(Genesis 1:28).  From the very beginning children, and their making, were a blessing from the Lord.  His blessing was to our first parents, Adam and Eve, and by extension to all of us.  Marriage and the children that are the gifts of this union are reflections of the divine love of the Holy Trinity.  God’s plan for us always meant that marriage and the gift of children would be sanctifying for us.  In this way, our shared love would make us holy.  His plan for us was perfect.  But our sin changed everything.  We separated love from sex and sex from marriage and marriage from fruitfulness.  In the process, we separated ourselves from God.  This is how the blessing of a child has become a “clump of cells.”  This is how we’ve come to kill 3700 babies every day in America.
 
The journey from blessing to burden, as many see children today, is the story of our culture.  By deadening our hearts to God’s plan of blessing, we’ve deadened our hearts to sin as well.  So much so that we no longer even see the connection between taking an innocent baby’s life (seen as a “right”) and the disintegration of our way of life.  We glorify the actors and movie makers who depict violent murders by giving them millions of our dollars every weekend at the box office.  We watch their movies, growing up with them as our regular entertainment.  We buy our kids violent video games and they beg us for the newest, most graphic versions.  They become saturated in the violence they watch.  They see commercials about Viagra and birth control devices and pills that promise easy sex with no “consequences.”  Many of their friends in school live in homes without a father.  Or they live with parents who aren’t committed to one another in marriage.  Nothing in their lives is permanent.  And no one talks to them about God or models His love for them and His plan for their lives and their happiness.  They absorb the culture of “me” and look to it for the answers to life’s great questions:  Why am I here?  What’s the purpose of my life?  Is this all there is?  And the culture answers them:  You are nothing but an animal with a thumb.  Your purpose is to experience as much physical pleasure as possible.  And when you die, you’re dead.  The end. 
 
And they believe it.  Because there’s nothing to contradict the culture’s answers.  We’ve made sure of that.  We’ve taken prayer out of schools and the public arena.  Anyone who professes the Christian faith is marginalized (“clinging to their Bibles”) and ridiculed (think of Tim Tebow).  We encourage diversity so long as that diversity doesn’t include Jesus Christ.  We’ve taken down all the crosses and the Christmas trees.  We live in fear of offending anyone with the values that once built this country.
 
And then one of us goes into a darkened theater and murders people he’s never met: just like he’s seen at the movies and on television and in his video games.  Or he takes his mother’s guns and goes into an elementary school and kills children and their teachers.  And we’re so horrified that we want to take up all the guns and lock them away: which will insure that only criminals and the insane will have guns now.
 
We’ve come so far from God’s truth that we no longer see the connection between murder in the womb and murder in the streets or theaters or elementary schools.  We don’t realize that when we separate love from sex and sex from pregnancy and pregnancy from God’s gift of a child that it affects the whole world.  Our actions matter.  The intentions of our heart matter.  What we value matters.  We protect trees and polar bears but kill unborn children by the millions.  Then we wonder why our society is so violent.  Are we so blind that we can’t see this connection?  So long as we support abortion we should expect to live in a violent, murderous land.  We’ve chosen to turn our back on God’s blessing to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Now, we reap what we have sown.
 
“Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants.”
                                                  —Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

The Face In The Pew

bound handsShe’s sitting just in front of you at Sunday Mass.  You see her at church occasionally, but you don’t know anything about her, even her name.  When Mass is over, she quickly makes her way out and is gone.  Until the next time.  Maybe next week.  Maybe next month or even six months from now.  She drifts into your parish life and then evaporates out of it.  It’s really a miracle that she connects with the Catholic Church at all.  She comes, not because of your parish’s lukewarm hospitality to her or to hear your pastor’s seven-minute homilies.  Mass for her, is both grace and torture.  She craves what the Mass offers and yet she feels a great barrier between her heart and the life of the Church.  My friends, that barrier is us.  You and me, with our own sins and secrets, our private judgments and hidden (and not-so-hidden) prejudices.  You’ve never said an unkind word to this woman.  You’ve probably warmly taken her hand at the Sign of Peace.  You’ve exchanged polite smiles and nods of greeting.  But there’s something that keeps her at a distance, something in her heart and something in your heart and in my heart.  And that something is abortion.
 
I’m thankful our Catholic faith supports life.  Standing up for the unborn marks us as stewards of God’s greatest gift.  For the most part, we do good corporate pro-life work in the public arena.  We have strong leadership in this from most of our bishops.  Many of our priests and pastors preach about life issues on Sunday.  Some of our parishes have pro-life ministries and a few offer retreats like Rachel’s Vineyard for women healing from the emotional and spiritual consequences of abortion.  At at the level of our hearts and our hands, we do a pretty poor job of offering the love and mercy of Christ to all the women, men and families wounded by abortion.
 
Imagine you’re that woman in the pew in front of you.  Hear what she hears us say about abortion and imagine what she might feel.  “It’s the greatest evil, the most horrific sin.  Killing an innocent baby.  Destroying God’s most precious gift.”  And what we say is true.  We must put an end to abortion.  We need to hold prayer vigils and marches for life.  We have to support candidates for political office who will help end abortion in America.  But for every condemnation of the sin of abortion, we have to remember that woman in the pew.  We have to be mercy and love for her.  Not as a theory.  Not as part of our parish mission statement.  But as the heart of Christ.  We have to imitate Him.  And how does Jesus love?  How does He offer mercy?
 
He meets people where they are.  At a well at noontime.  On their sickbed.  As they are about to be stoned.  As they are hung on their own cross.  As they lie dead in their tomb.  Or in their pew at Sunday Mass.  He meets them where they are in their pain and sin; in their despair and their need.  When they are with Him, He is there for them.  And we must be there for these hurting women.  The only Church they have is us.  They may feel accused and forgotten by us.  They may be ashamed and hate themselves for what they’ve done.  They may expect that we hate them too.  They may feel that their abortion is unforgivable.  Many of them may never set foot in a Church again.  But you can bet that at any given Mass there are dozens of post-abortion women in the pews with you.  The statistics of abortion support this.
 
Every unknown face at Mass is a child of God drawn to His Church by hope and by the working of the Holy Spirit.  And every time we fail to welcome them, we fail Christ.  Every time we overlook the person behind that unknown face, we fail to do His will.  When that woman in the pew feels unwelcome, she may not come back.  When she feels that her sin, any of her sins, is too great or too dark for God’s mercy, we have failed her as His Church.  As we stand against abortion, we must also stand beside  and reach out in love to its many victims.  For every word she hears condemning the sin, she must hear seventy-times-seven words of His love and forgiveness.  And not just words, but our actions must reach out to her.  A few moments meeting her after Mass.  A conversation over coffee in the social hall.  It can start out so small, but our hospitality can lead to great healing for her, and also for us.  Don’t forget the old saying that each one of us is fighting a great battle here in this life.  As His Church we are called to take care of our own.
 
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

                                                                   –Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta