It’s not an exaggeration to say that millions of people throughout the world are at present keeping their eyes fixed on one small chimney protruding from the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. All the broadcasters on the topic of the papal election are in the curious position of being both in overdrive yet able to say nothing at all. There is no news and the rest is endless guesswork. John Wilkins, former Editor of The Tablet, said recently on a Radio 4 programme about the resignation of Benedict XVI, that he “knew” that the then Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected because not only was he the favourite candidate but the balloting had been so brief. This time nobody knows. Wilder talk centres on someone who can “clean up the Vatican.”
Religious broadcasters are also discreetly hoping that their man will be chosen: Fr Robert Barron, rather to my surprise (but then, he’s also an American) put the case for Cardinal Timothy Dolan; Michael Voris put the case for Cardinal Raymond Burke; Robert Moynihan, in a recent rambling Letter from Rome, quoted an anonymous Italian woman who was very enthusiastic for Cardinal Christophe Schoenborn; Cardinal Schoenborn’s mother, who is aged 92, has responded to this thought much like Fr Georg Ratzinger when he heard the news of his younger brother’s elevation: she is not happy about it. And on the World Service last night the BBC special correspondent Allan Little discussed the possibility of another talked-of candidate: Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Sao Paolo.
Of all the information and speculation that is pouring from Rome, one small item, mentioned on RomeReports, struck me most forcibly: the so-called “Room of Tears” in the Casa Santa Marta , where the cardinals are staying during the election. Photos show a room larger than the others, with a forlorn yet dignified appearance, and with a chaise-longue type of settee, a rack of significant vestments and a desk covered in orderly piles of documents. It is called the “Room of Tears” because that is where the new pope will retire to collect his thoughts as he is vested before appearing on the Vatican balcony for the first time.
It does not surprise that the man chosen might weep at the thought of the heavy cross he is about to carry on behalf of the Church. No longer is it the case that a newly-elected pope says, as a Renaissance forbear, Leo X, is alleged to have said, “God has given us the papacy; now let us enjoy it.” Indeed, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec is quoted as having described the position as “a nightmare.”
Despite all the media discussion, we lay Catholics want a Holy Father who is neither Right-wing nor Left-wing. That is the language of politics, not of faith. A friend who is reading “The Catholic Church and Conversion” by GK Chesterton, first published in 1926, has sent me this extract: “We do not want a religion that is right when we are right. What we want is a religion that is right when we are wrong…a religion, in the real sense of a binding thing, [that] binds men to their morality when it is not identical to their mood. It is very different when some of the saints preached social reconciliation to fierce and raging factions who could hardly bear the sight of each other’s faces. It was a very different thing when charity was preached to pagans who did not believe in it; just as it is a very different thing now, when chastity is preached to new pagans who do not believe in it. It is in those cases that we get the real grapple of religion; and it is in those cases that we get the peculiar and solitary triumph of the Catholic faith.”
We want a pope capable of enunciating this “peculiar and solitary triumph” to the world without compromise; and at the same time a pope who can communicate to the millions who live in spiritual darkness that there is a source of faithful and enduring light – the light of Christ.