Did you ever dissect anything when you were in high school biology class? I remember a worm, and a frog, and a fetal pig. It did narrow my vocational discernment by at least one degree – I knew I was not called to practice medicine.
Suddenly I was reminded of that episode as I was reading the coverage of the Cardinals gathering in Rome to bid farewell to Benedict XVI (now the Roman Pontiff Emeritus) and prepare to choose a successor to him, and to Saint Peter. The deeper you plunge into the biographies of these churchmen, the harder it becomes to remember that each is just one member of a larger whole – the College of Cardinals, and, overall, the Body of Christ: the Church.
It can be fascinating to focus one person, one situation, one element of anything. In almost any case, it can give some insight into the inner working of whatever it is we are trying to understand. But the danger is always there that focusing on the smaller components or elements can lead one to lose sight of the larger whole. This is where the expression comes from that someone cannot see the forest for the trees.
Last week I wrote about Cardinal Baum, who is just one member of the College of Cardinals. I was also priest secretary to Cardinal McCarrick. Cardinal Wuerl has been my archbishop for almost seven years. Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal (Edwin) O’Brien were both my rector while I was in seminary. Trust me: they are ALL fascinating people. You could listen to their homilies, study their biographies, list weaknesses and mistakes along with strengths and accomplishments. But even if you were to come to some understanding of each or even every one of them, you would still have yet to understand how they function as a whole.
The “whole” here is the Conclave itself. Just over one hundred of these Cardinals, fortified and informed by the experience of their encounters during the General Congregations, discern among themselves who it is that is emerging as the next Pope. It is more than just information, opinion, or ideology. It is something that none of them could do alone, or in any smaller group.
All that I can liken to this is the Sacrament of Penance. That requires two people, with two personalities. Both need to have been Baptized; one needs to have been ordained Priest. Neither can be omitted. Both have something to say. Both must listen. What sins one is moved to recognize and acknowledge; what direction, consolation, encouragement, and assignment the other one gives – all this is the fruit of the moment, the mix, and the working of Holy Spirit. And because of the actions of the two, God acts. In all of this, His mercy takes away guilt, and sin. A description of the participants before, and after, no matter how thorough, would not reveal what has occurred, or how.
The Conclave and the Confessional are not dissimilar. Both are examples of how the several members of the Body of Christ must unite in order for God’s work to be accomplished. Both are more than one could ever comprehend simply by dissecting them into their component parts. The Word becomes flesh, indeed; but since Jesus, not in just any one man’s flesh. His many members unite to form His body.
So you can have something of the Conclave experience right here at home, without even a red hat to your name. The Cardinals will have in the Conclave with them two or three priests, chosen for their language abilities, to hear their Confessions. When you are ready for your life to be united into the Body of Christ by His mercy, remember: the Light is On for You.