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Father Muench Says...

Reflecting on conclaves, then and now

March 6, 2013

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

This is a rather historic time in our Catholic Church.  Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict’s retirement is something that hasn’t been done in 600 years.  So our Church is preparing for a new conclave. I have been reading a new biography of Pope John XXIII, written by Greg Tobin in 2012, since before Pope Benedict’s announcement.  The conclave that elected Pope John XXIII was certainly one of the most unique in Church’s history and shows how there can be many surprises when the Church meets in conclave.

Pope Pius XII died in 1958.  At that time, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli (soon to be Pope John XXIII) was archbishop of Venice.  He was certainly not considered a likely candidate to be elected Pope.  In the biography, Tobin notes that an Italian publication printed the biographies of 20 cardinals likely to be chosen as Pope (in Latin, this is called “papabili”) and Cardinal Roncalli was not included.

On October 25, 1958, the Cardinals (then 50 – now there will be 117) processed into the sector of the Sistine Chapel for the voting.  On the eleventh ballot, Cardinal Roncalli was chosen.  After, many surmised that he was chosen because he was older (78 at the time) \and would not be Pope for very long, that his papacy would be sort of transitional. Later a more obvious choice would be elected.  They didn’t expect too much to come out his papacy – God’s surprises are wonderful, aren’t they!

Once chosen, Cardinal Roncalli demonstrated that this was to be a unique decision.  The tradition upon the election of one of the Cardinals is this: the College of Cardinals (at that time, it was Cardinal Tisserant) approaches the Cardinal that is elected and says, “Do you accept the election, canonically made, of yourself as Pontiff?”

Usually, the Cardinal elected simply says – “Accepto” (I accept). Cardinal Ronacalli at that moment took from his pocket the Latin text over which he had worked through the long hours of the previous  night (the voting trend was such that he knew he would soon be the one elected) and he read this:“At the sound of your voice, I am made to tremble and I fear.  For what I know will of my poverty and insignificance is enough to bring me to confusion.  But seeing the votes of my brothers, the most eminent Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, the sign of the will of God, I accept the election made by them.  I bow my head and my back to the chalice of bitterness and to the yoke of the cross. On this solemn feast of Christ the King, all of us have sung: ‘The Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord Is our King.’ He will save us.”

This is a powerful statement that truly indicates that, from the very beginning of this Pontificate, something special and wonderful would be happening. Then Cardinal Tisserant was instructed to ask – “Quomodo vis vocari?” (How do you wish to be called?) When elected Pope, the Cardinal chooses a pontifical name.  Pope John then went into a very lengthy explanation of why he had chosen “John.”  It goes on for two pages.

Then – as we all know – began a short but very unique Pontificate that, I believe, changed our Church for the better. The story is that after only five days Pope John began to talk of the idea of calling an ecumenical Council – the Second Vatican Council – the first in 90 years.

Those were exciting days for me as a young priest.  It was also such a time of surprises.  So, you never know, folks.  The Holy Spirit may have some more surprises in store for us.  So, please join me as we pray to the Holy Spirit, first in gratitude for Pope Benedict XVI and then for a wise choice of Pope for the future.  However, Holy Spirit keep us alert for your surprises.

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