As we approach the papal conclave, it is interesting to notice the coverage taking place. The media focuses on the political maneuvering taking place while Church spokespeople talk about prayer, discernment, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. Which is it?
We would be naive to think that there is no political maneuvering taking place among the cardinals at the conclave. At the same time, we would be just as naive to think that the Holy Spirit is repulsed by the idea of being associated with such maneuvering. We continue to suffer from a dualism that insists that it must be either or; all or nothing.
The central notion of the Incarnation is that God is not afraid to get God’s hands “dirty.” Jesus allowed himself to be plunged into the murky waters of the Jordan which was “polluted” with the sins of all those being baptized. The Incarnation is messy business. God does not disdain our human maneuverings but invites us to conduct such maneuverings in conjunction with his will.
A good example is found in Acts of the Apostles 1:15-26, when the Apostles chose Judas’ successor. After Peter sets the stage for what needs to be done and describes the qualities needed in such a candidate, it says that “they proposed two: Joseph called Barsabbas, and Matthias.” These names did not just drop from the sky. No doubt, there was political maneuvering to narrow it down to these two. Then, however, the story reveals that they prayed and then drew lots which was an act of surrendering the decision to a power beyond themselves. The process involved BOTH political maneuvering and the guidance of the Spirit.
This kind of decision-making needs to be recovered, especially at the parish and diocesan levels. Does that mean we have to draw lots to determine major decisions? No. But it does mean that we need to recover a decision-making process that is truly an act of discernment and one of reaching concensus, the basis of which is the notion that, although the final decision may not be exactly what I wanted, I can live with it.
So, as we stand at the threshhold of the papal conclave, let us not be naive but let us also not be cynical. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals in their decision-making process so that the political maneuverings that are taking place are done in conjunction with the will of God which is for the Kingdom to be proclaimed to the world.
P.S. For a good description of consensus and decision-making, see this article by Dr. Michael Cieslak from the Diocese of Rockford, IL. When I was in parish ministry, we used this model for the parish pastoral council and it was very fulfilling and effective.
[clip art courtesy of Jonathan, Steward, Clker.com]