It has been almost two hundred years – since 1829 – since the Church has elected a Pope during Lent. As I grappled with the reality of Popelessness, it dawned on me that this is the perfect season in which to deal with the exigencies of a sede vacante in the See of Peter.
Have you noticed how everyone has been talking about what’s wrong with the Church? No, not the things non-Catholics, non-Christians, and non-believers, as well as many hyperbolic commentators, think are wrong with the Church; those are in fact exactly what is true, good, and beautiful about the Church because they reflect the Faith that is our precious treasure. No, I am talking about the real things that are wrong with the Church, the fruit of human weaknesses and systemic failures that cling to the gown of the spotless Bride of Christ like stains on satin.
Even the Cardinals themselves have been working and praying to make certain that they do not neglect or overlook any of these shortcomings, to bring them to one another’s attention and to identify their sources and origins. To sit and endure this parade of shortcomings and have it discussed as if it were the defining characteristic of our Church is humiliating and discouraging.
Two weeks ago I likened a Conclave to the Sacrament of Penance, because of the way its unique grace occurs only in a conversation among parties, none of whom know in advance what the others will say, but all of whom are confident that the outcome will be the work of God. Well, now I see yet another resemblance.
This airing of the “dirty laundry” of the Church Herself serves a similar purpose to the confession of a penitent. In order to receive the remedy, the wound must be identified; the illness must be diagnosed. That God be able to reveal His merciful prescription, we must acknowledge our need for His salvation.
During both procedures – Confession, and the General Congregations – it can be quite discouraging if we allow ourselves to think for a moment that these sins, these shortcomings, define and describe us. It is important that even as we admit responsibility for these wrongs, evil is not our only accomplishment, nor do our sins reveal our identity.
Though sinners, we are beloved children of the living God, made in His image and likeness. Despite the shortcomings of the Church’s all-too-human members, He makes that same Church into His own divine body, His very presence on earth, the vessel of salvation.
Because we acknowledge our sins, we experience God’s life-giving mercy, and are bathed in joy. Because the leaders of the Church acknowledge their faults, they are able to recognize who is our new shepherd. The bells ring, the streets and squares fill, and the Body of Christ rejoices in her new head on earth.
He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:6) After the somber hues of Lenten penance, the Church bedecks herself in the festive raiment of Easter. After the relentless self-scrutiny of the sede vacante, we announce our great joy – and, like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Mt 13:52b), show the world all the blessings of our Church.
Habemus papam! Long live Pope Francis!