Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Empty Chair

The Chair is empty.  That is what sede vacante means after all.  No one sits on the Chair of Peter today and for an uncertain number of days.  This is always a time of mixed emotions for Catholics; a time of uncertainty and unease.  But, it is also a time of hope and expectation; a time of dreams and desires for what the future might hold; what the future can hold.  It is a time that will remain a "time inbetween" until we hear two more Latin words: Habemus Papam, We have a Pope!

There is speculation now about whether or not the Cardinals will move the date of the Conclave sooner.  One of the Pope Emeritus' final actions was to allow for the possibility of shortening the standard 15 day waiting period. They probably will do that.  The reasoning behind the move would be to get the  new Supreme Pontiff in place before Holy Week which begins on March 24 with Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion.

There's almost an arrogance in the notion that it will all happen like clockwork, though, if you really think about it.  There is the old saying, "We plan and God laughs."  What if God has something else in store for us?  What if God wants to shake things up a bit?

When you look at the history of Conclaves, they are not always orderly affairs.  True, Pope Benedict was elected in a Conclave that lasted just over 24 hours.  Blessed Pope John Paul II was elected in three days on the eighth ballot in 1978.  The shortest ever was in 1503 where the Cardinals took just a couple of hours to select Pope Julius II.  But, the Conclave that eventually elected Pope Gregory X in 1271 took two years, two months and nine days to reach that decision; and it was only reached after the Cardinals were reduced to a diet of bread and water and the roof of the building they were meeting in was removed!

The point is just this - once the doors of the Sistine Chapel are locked anything can happen. That' just how the Holy Spirit rolls.  And that, for me, is the wonder and the excitement and the nervousness and the beauty all wrapped into one that is so special about our Holy Roman Catholic Church - especially in these moments.  And, I think it is one of the things that perhaps just confuses people about us darned Catholics some times.

Whether we are a conservative or progressive Catholic; Latin Mass or Folk Mass - that empty Chair makes us uncomfortable.  We need Peter to be the glue that binds us - even if  he does so uncomfortably.  Even when it is a Pope that we have great hopes in or one that we wish could lead differently, every Pope is still our Pope.  We need the Vicar of Christ that points us in the right direction; that helps us to remain together as one flock.  Though we are many, we are still one, under one Shepherd.

In John's Gospel, Jesus reminds us, "I will not leave you orphans." We take comfort in that and yet, still we wait.  From sede vacante until habemus papam, we wait.  I don't know about you, but I choose to wait with hope.  This, I think, is a moment unlike any that has preceded it.  And because of its unprecedented nature, anything can happen.  Just as Blessed Pope John 23rd (a Third Order Franciscan, by the way), was an unexpected breath of fresh air that ushered in the Second Vatican Council, my hope is that this moment of emptiness or vacancy is going to be filled with the unexpected.

The Holy Spirit has a way of working through us despite our own faults and failings and my hope and prayer is that this incredible moment will be a time where something extraordinary will take place. Certainly we've already seen something of that in the resignation of Benedict XVI - a move so unexpected and unprecedented that the next Conclave will already be different than any previous one.

My other hope is that our new Holy Father be marked by qualities of compassion and kindness, by love and joy.  That he be a Pope who smiles and laughs and understand ordinary people and their ordinary struggles - as Our Lord did - and that he can connect with them on an every day level so that they can see that the 2,000 year old faith of the Catholic Church is not distant, is not out-of-touch, is not irrelevant, but is the very Truth of God and can speak to the regular moments of their life and make a different in how they live.

In the Book of Revelation, Christ seated up the throne declares, "Behold I make all things new."  The time of sede vacante can be a time of uncertainty, but it can also be a time to be made new.  The Cardinals gathered in General Congregations - the meetings in advance of the Conclave - can be open to the Fresh Air of the Holy Spirit let in by Benedict's resignation.  They can choose a man - perhaps even someone unexpected - who will renew us once again in the freshness of the Gospel; set our hearts on fire for Christ; help us to fall in love once again with His Church.  Our Catholic history is full of such holy men and women. From St. Paul through St. Augustine to St. Francis and St. Clare to St. Catherine of Siena to St. Patrick and into our own time to people like Dorothy Day, Blessed Mother Teresa and Blessed Pope John Paul II.

That Chair sits empty once again.  We wait between sede vacante and habemus papam. And we wait with hope and expectation.  A hope that the unexpected can happen. That the Spirit will breath new life once again. That the New Evangelization will pour out and overflow. That once again, even after 2,000 years of faithful following, we can once again be made new.  St. Francis of Assisi said near the end of his life, "Let us begin again, for up until now we have done nothing."

Indeed, let us begin again and let us be made new.

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