“The conclave,” writes Fr Lombardi on the Vatican Radio website, “is an event that can be really understood, and lived serenely and peacefully, only from the perspective of faith. The two leading figures of the previous conclaves have given us an intense and unforgettable witness. Pope John Paul II contemplated Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in his poem Roman Triptych: ‘All things are naked and open before the eyes of God, … the clarity of events, the clarity of consciences.’ ‘You who see all things – point him out!’ ‘He will point him out.’ And the future Pope Ratzinger commented: ‘the patrimony of the keys handed to Peter … To place these keys in the right hands: this is the immense responsibility of those days.’
“By his extraordinary renunciation, Pope Benedict has led the cardinals to cross once more the threshold of the Sistine Chapel, to discern the one who will be entrusted with the keys. Now, silently, but with profound understanding, he is with all of us in prayer: ‘Spirit of God, who sees all things – point him out.’”
Well, we Catholics, who are awaiting the results of the conclave this time with, I suspect, more than the usual level of uncertainty (even anxiety) given the destabilising effect on many of us — certainly on me — of that “extraordinary renunciation”, know very well that the conclave can be really understood, and lived “serenely and peacefully, only from the perspective of faith”. Serenely and peacefully, however, is not how the secular media want to understand it. They are interested only in superficiality and, if at all possible, prurience. “Wary cardinals seek holy man to oust ‘dirty dozen’” is the headline over a ludicrous piece by someone called John Follain in yesterday’s Sunday Times. The “dirty dozen” turns out to be a blacklist of cardinals drawn up by an American victims group which claims they failed to take a stand in child abuse scandals. The “wary cardinals”, however, have almost certainly not heard of this blacklist. It includes, if you can believe this, Cardinals Ouellet, Scola and Sandri: according to a “senior Vatican official” (oh, yes?), many cardinals have misgivings about Cardinal Ouellet. “All the cardinals know him but the trouble with Ouellet is that his brother was convicted of sexual assault on an underage girl. How can you ignore that?” That’s how he gets to be among the “dirty dozen”.
In the early stages of what has been, because of the unusual circumstances of this particular period of sede vacante, an unusually prolonged media picking over the Church’s entrails, our own Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith wrote of the “ordeal” awaiting us, of “having to watch the airwaves fill with a whole load of people who are very marginal to Church life, and yet who will be invited to pontificate on all matters papal and religious, giving it their own particular slant, which they will advance as a mainstream view”.
And so it has proved; it began (before the usual ill-informed chatter about alleged papabili got under way) with demeaning and contemptuous stuff from non-Catholics about the condition of the Church and even about Pope Benedict himself; this I found particularly difficult to stomach. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, and a fellow of my own college (if I had still been a fellow of St Cross at the time, I would have voted against his election), who is himself an unbeliever openly hostile to the Catholic Church, began a piece in the Times by suggesting that the Church, in the wake of Pope Benedict’s abdication, was quite simply falling apart. He went on to sneer (it’s the only possible word) at Pope Benedict himself: “His very title, though perhaps a slight improvement on my immediate suggestion of Pope Father on the analogy of Queen Mother, is fraught with unfortunate implications. One emeritus professor, when asked to explain his title, explained that it was derived from the Latin e, meaning ‘out’ and meritus, meaning ‘deserves to be’. Now we watch Benedict’s conditions for retirement (my italics) unfold: continued use of his papal name, continued use of the white garments reserved exclusively for the Pope, the continued position of his faithful companion Georg Gänswein (a newly minted archbishop) as adviser not merely to Benedict but to the next incumbent Pope… A common syndrome among the reluctantly retired is wanting to have their cake and eat it.” If ever there was an undeserved slur, it is surely that: MacCulloch’s sneering suggestion that Pope Benedict is “among the reluctantly retired” is simply nonsense: as for the contemptible snigger that he wants “to have his cake and eat it”: the late Holy Father’s palpable humility — visible to everyone except McCulloch — makes it unnecessary to waste any time on thinking up some sort of retort.
The point about all these pontifications, whether over the airwaves or in the print media, either by secular commentators or by the kind of Catholics the liberal media like to give a platform to because their views on the Catholic tradition are so similar to their own, it is that this wonderful free for all is the only chance for many of them to be heard at all on this subject: as soon as the excitement following the election of a new pope has died down, comment editors will abruptly decide that they are all poped out, and move on: and we will all return to the secular world’s usual condition of indifference to the Church.
Then at least, left to ourselves, we will be able, under the guidance of a new Holy Father (who will, I hope and pray, see it as his aim to complete the work of the pontificate which has just come to such an unexpected end), and with God’s help, return in the light of a new Eastertide to the business of building up the Church once more, free of the attentions of the roving media protagonists who so rarely care a jot about what, for a week or so, is currently attracting their fitful attention.