Thursday, April 14, 2005


The Conclave: Why so much ritual? Why all the secrecy?

Secrecy first: Think back to last fall's presidential campaign and election. It got ugly at times. In a community of religion, one as broad and deep as the Catholic Church, there is danger that a process similar to the raucous American election season, where parties, interest groups, and the media apply all kinds of healthy and unhealthy pressures, would be chaotic and unintelligible. And the outcome, intended to reflect inspired, prayerful consideration, would be terrible uncertainty and partisanship. In its long adventure, the Catholic Church has learned lessons from its own story and from secular history. While the deliberations of the Cardinal-electors will be secret for now, and probably should be, everyone who wants to know the steps of the process and the specific procedures that will take place can do so. There is an abundance of information available about this "secret" ceremony. Eventually, more about the actual events of this conclave will be known, and the electors are certainly aware of that. Further, many facts about these electors and their personal roads to Rome are broadcast and printed daily.

The process now in place for the modern Church to choose its next worldly shepherd is one that respects its long tradition and the spirit of the ancient Church as well. The New Testament shows the apostles deliberating together over important questions and reaching consensus. This is what the electors will do. They need the time and space to do it well and to listen to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. It won't be long before the rest of the story is investigated. There is a "healthy confidentiality" that needs to be preserved.

This brings us to the general point of ritual. Ritual is two things: symbol and tradition. The rituals accompanying the papal transition remind us that Catholicism is sacramental and universal. Where human language creates differences, distinctions, ambiguities and misunderstanding, the incorporation of public ritual returns the Church to the signification of its fundamental truths. What we believe is made alive, acted out. Liturgy is drama.

At Pope John Paul's funeral, the Mass came to its conclusion and different voices were heard to offer a short series of blessings and committals. In this series was a blessing chanted by a delegation from the Eastern rites of the Church. It was chanted in Greek, echoing the most ancient of the Church's common languages. Hearing the prayers of these ancestral communities gave us a glimpse into the prayer and heart of the first generations of Christians. It was a reminder of the continuity of today's Church with the first-century apostolic community.

G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, "Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death." Especially in the Church, our tradition has an enormous amount to teach us. Liturgy and ritual teach us through powerful symbols and actions. We believe, pray, and hand on the living Scriptures, the words and and acts of the apostles and the many services--in both the liturgical and moral senses--that mark the timeless character of the Christian vocation and identity. Ritual is not only important, but of the essence.

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