Friday, March 15, 2013

Fingerprints of Providence: 3 amazing days

You couldn’t have scripted the three days I spent in Rome for the papal conclave any better than what actually panned out. From beginning to end, the trip had the tone of a pilgrimage and the fingerprints of God’s gracious--and dramatic!--providence all over it. 

Take, for example, some of the not-so-simple details of throwing together a trip to Rome on crazy short notice. Found convenient flights in a few hours. Found a hotel very close to St. Peter’s square. The manager told us we had booked his last room, and he was daily flooded with requests. 

The most dramatic aspect of the experience was the sheer unpredictability of the timing of everything. First, we didn’t know when the conclave was even going to start, and booked our flights based on our best guess. We arrived Sunday night. The opening Mass (Missa Pro Eligendo) was Tuesday morning, and the conclave began just hours later. 

But even more gut-wrenching was the looming uncertainty of when the new Holy Father would be elected. Every single moment of the trip we felt this concern build as a slow burn of anticipation. Granted, if the Pope had been elected after we left Rome--say, Thursday morning or evening, or Friday, or later--it would have been fine. Still a memorable experience, prayerful and all that. 

But when we realized at our very last opportunity for an election that the smoke filling the sky above the Sistine Chapel was in fact white--it first was convincingly black to our eyes--dejection turned into jubilation.  

Wednesday morning I was doing a live interview on Sirius XM radio. Mark Hart, the host and a friend, said at the end of the interview, when he realized how everything (for us, anyway!) came down to the evening ballots, said, “Let me say, brother to brother, that for your sake, I really hope the white smoke comes tonight, so you can experience it all in person.” I told him that’s I’d be okay with whatever God’s will is..but that it seemed strangely unlikely that God would bring me all the way to Rome for a conclave just to have me miss it by a ballot or two, and fly home to watch it on TV in Arizona. Obviously, that wasn’t the plan. 

Now, with tears in my eyes and cranberry juice in hand on flight home, it unmistakably strikes me: as a Catholic who loves the Church, a student of history who loves pivotal moments, a priest who needs the Pope’s guidance and authentic example of priesthood, and as a son who loves his Papa...I’m not sure I could be an ounce happier, this side of eternity.  


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Buzzer beater

I got to St. Peter's square today at 5 pm. It was my last shot at witnessing the election of a Pope, because my flight back to Phoenix is tomorrow morning.

It rained all day. All day. My friends and I wandered all around, chatted with people, and kept staring at the basilica, the tv screens, and other people. Trying to keep dry and warm and upbeat. Black smoke felt...probably.

We waited and prayed and waited some more.

The time for the first ballot of the afternoon came and went. No smoke. No white smoke.

So we waited, and the anticipation grew. Slow burn.

Waiting. Hoping.

Waiting. Waiting.

We prayer vespers. The first night of the conclave the black smoke came out while we prayed the Magnificat.

That didn't work this time.

Then at 7:06 what looked like black smoke appeared, and a spirit of dejection came over us. The crowd sighed, moaned, lamented.

And then someone yelled, "It's white!!!"
And the place went crazy. Elation, joy, bliss. It's winning the super bowl, combined with being a foster child and getting a new Dad. The thought has been crossing my mind..."Would God bring me all the way to Rome for a conclave, just to fly back to AZ and watch it happen on tv?"

 Apparently not!

Rain. Wait. Repeat.

Waiting for the next puff of smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel....

The rain seems undecided here in Rome. I keep going out with an umbrella, and it doesn't rain. And then, like this morning, I went without an umbrella to St. Peter's for a private Mass, and when I exited the basilica later it was pouring.

Here's hoping the cardinals in conclave are proving themselves more decisive than the rain.

I wasn't in Rome during the last conclave, so I don't know what it was like on the ground. But someone who was in Rome then mentioned that the atmosphere was charged with a particular spiritual current. Blessed John Paul II had died, and many of the young pilgrims who flocked to Rome for his funeral were still here for the conclave.

With the quite different circumstances behind the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and consequent ambiguous feel of the days between his announcement and the start of the conclave (which was exactly one month, if I'm not mistaken), there is in Rome what I would describe an a kind of uncertainty that borders on uncertainty.

I don't mean that in a necessarily negative way. It may simply be more a reflection of who happens to be in Rome these strange days. Waiting for the first smoke last night, I chatted with various folks in St. Peter's square, asking them where they came from and why they were here.

Some university students told me that they bought tickets to Rome from Cambridge several weeks ago, and it was just chance that they were at the conclave. Other people from the States told me that they planned to come to Rome this week months ago, and it was dumb luck that they were here for the conclave.

So I guess what I'm saying is this:

The vibe is like a World Youth Day...with a few notable differences.

It's cold.

The people who showed up didn't necessarily plan on coming to it.

And no one knows when the Pope is going to arrive.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's a small world, after all: the pre-conclave Mass

To see St. Peter's Basilica bursting with glorious light, soaring music, and thousands of pilgrims, is a breathtaking phenomenon.

But what really touches me is seeing the approximately 170 Cardinals gathered together and praying the Mass for the election of a Pope.

As they process up to the altar two by two and reverence it with a kiss, I see that they have come from every corner of the world. And here they were, postponing their work back home, to unite together in one spiritual work, the election of a new Roman Pontiff.

Full disclosure: as a Catholic who loves the Church and its history and high theological claims, I can be as lured by the wiles of triumphalism as easily as the next guy. And this moment, with all its glorious beauty and historical weight, could easily have been an occasion for this kind of ecclesial and self back-patting.

In fact, what occurred during the Mass was just the opposite. Moments after moment was marked by a call to tender and heartfelt humility.

One example: the tone (literally and figuratively) of the Mass was set by the opening hymn, Psalm 27, which is essentially a humble and emotional cry to God for help: "Hear the voice of my pleading as I call for help..." The antiphon punctuating the psalm was: "The Lord is the strength of his people, a saving refuge for the one he has anointed. Save your people, Lord, and bless your heritage, and govern them for ever."

These ancient Jewish texts originate from Israel's experience of not only being chosen as God's special inheritance, but also of the way that this "divine election" requires an ongoing process of purification and growth, marked as they were by a history of difficulties, suffering, and, most especially, by God's marvelously faithful interventions.

And now, in this glorious basilica, in 2013, it's clear to me that the claim to be God's chosen people (the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church") necessitates a demand to be utterly small, even humiliatingly dependent on God's providence and guidance.

Triumphalism means you hold your present, past, and future into your own capable hands.

But the pre-conclave Mass signaled anything but this kind of self-assurance. It signified something much more beautiful. Human life--perhaps even especially those men called to be Cardinals in the Church--are utterly dependent on the gracious goodness of God for absolutely everything....from life, to faith, to grace for the election of a new Pope.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Whatcha Need on Conclave's Eve

Scouring the streets of Rome the day before a papal conclave is a fascinating experience.

What is really about to unfold in the coming day?

Like so much of what the Catholic Church says, the happenings of a conclave not only borders on, but races straight into, the arms of the humanly impossible: the successor of Peter will be chosen. And he will be chosen in a line of unbroken historical succession, stretching back two millennia. And he will be given the grace to shepherd the universal Church that Jesus Himself founded. 

So today has been, well...strange, trying to take in the feeling, the atmosphere around Rome and the Vatican.

For some tourists who got lucky with scheduling, it's just a spectacle. For flippant and good-humored (but cynical) Roman restauranteurs, it's Rome just being Rome.  For politically and globally (but secular) -minded people, it's the interesting but dumbfounding creaking of a old dusty bureaucratic grandfather clock.   

But for the theologically minded--that is, those who see history as something which God has strangely entered into *(through the very unprecedented events recorded in the documents we call the Old and New Testaments) it is something quite indescribable: the election of the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ.

Remember how strange Peter is in the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles. He denies Jesus when it counted most. Then, later on, his shadow heals people when it falls on them. He teaches so powerfully that thousands of people are baptized into the Christian life. He has mystical visions. Apostles like Paul submit their God-given teaching to him for approval. And, as the Gospels hint and history bears out, he humiliatingly sacrifices his life as a witness by a tortuous death, so calmly convinced he was that something worth living--and dying for--had begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

But I guess what hit me today, walking around the almost-too-normal streets of Rome, was how everything Catholics believe about the Papacy as the succession of Peter and Peter's office in the Church (and therefore through normal, "secular" history), is utterly contingent on the active work and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that came upon Peter and the other Eleven on that weird morning we call "Pentecost." The Spirit that the 115 men in red will invoke in chant tomorrow morning as they march into another upper room with locked doors. 

....With all this on my mind, I marched up the Gianicolo Hill on the Night Before the Conclave to the North American College (the "NAC"), and offered the Holy Mass at the Pentecost Altar in the crypt chapel. And there I prayed that God would guide the Cardinals (and the whole Church) by means of the absolutely necessary grace of a new Pentecost. Meaning that God would directly guide those entrusted with the universal Church, with Fire that cannot be seen, but whose effects are seen and experienced. 

Meaning that God would give us what we could never give ourselves: a shepherd who will feed His lambs, and tend His sheep, with Divine Life, with Heavenly Fire.  

Manic Monday: Rome 24 hours before a conclave

When the opportunity came up to come to Rome for the conclave, and I prayed that God would direct me to know whether I should do so as a quiet pilgrim in prayer, or share the experience of prayer via Social Media. I sensed that God wanted the latter, so I said, "God, I'm happy to share the experience with anyone you wish."

Since then, in my first 20 hours in Rome, I've bumped into all sorts of interesting media types here to cover the conclave.

For example:

On my flight from London to Rome, the man across the aisle asked me if I was going to the conclave. I said yes, and we had a lovely chat the rest of the flight. Turns out, the gentleman is Sean Klein, the Bureaux Editor for the BCC, for the entire continent of Europe. He is here with a huge gaggle of reporters from the BCC to cover the conclave. We chatted about journalism, languages, paparazzi, and how faith factors into the professional life of a journalist in Europe these days.

At the east edge of the St. Peter's square a host of journalists are gathered. I bumped into the team from WGN in Chicago and chatted with them about why I am in Rome and what the conclave means to me as a priest and a Catholic. They were particularly interested in the fact that I studied in Chicago at Mundelein Seminary for 5 years. Watch WGN tonight and see if my mug gets on there. On the WGN website they said they spoke with a seminarian from, hey WGN, I hope you didn't mean me. I'm neither. Check out my beard, you know? I'm old!

Later in the day, strolling by the well-known Via Borgo Pio just north of the Vatican, I bumped into Fr. Jonathan Morris from Sirius XM. He has been doing wonderful short interviews with Cardinal Dolan from the North American College.

There is a calm anticipation all around Rome, perhaps it would seem like a normal March day, except for details here and there...The windows of the Apostolic Palace shuttered. Pictures of Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus on the back of buses, with the word "Grazie!", "Thank you!" above it. Press boxes going up in random places. And my favorite...I was sitting outside at lunch enjoying great, simple Roman pizza with seminarians and priests and other friends, when we saw a cardinal quietly duck into the front door of the little church just behind us.

Apparently he has something on his heart to bring to prayer.

Saturday, March 9, 2013



Now, slightly calmer...

I'll be in Rome starting the Sunday before the conclave. I'll be there as a pilgrim and a priest. And I'm looking forward to sharing the experience with everyone who is interested in my experience there. I plan on being all around the goings-on around the Vatican. I predict the unpredictable!

I'll posting here on this blog a few times a day. I'll be tweeting from @Fr_JMuir and also on my Facebook page, for FrJohn Muir. Feel free to follow along, comment, and above all, to pray with me!

Friday, March 8, 2013

priesthood and a dead end

As we get ready for the election of a new Pope, let's refresh our memories about how central to Jesus and the Church--and indeed, the Papacy--is the notion of priesthood.  And if I'm not mistaken, this is first time in a video Fr Barron has ever said the words, "I'm the emperor of China."

Don't we sometimes find ourselves--perhaps unconsciously--making similar assumptions as Garry Wills? When in fact the New Testament present Jesus--Fr Barron is saying--as restoring and transforming the notion of priesthood in his person and work.