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.
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.