The Conclave: Day Two
From Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI.
My work colleagues and I sat transfixed in front of the TV. Like so many people around the world, we had been waiting for this moment for days. The smoke seemed to be white, or possibly grey. There were no bells to be heard. Vatican Radio reported that the smoke was black, but then backtracked and admitted uncertainty. The hosts and guest commentators on CBC and CNN were falling all over themselves trying to explain what was going on, trying to fill the prolonged empty spaces with the pretense of educated and informed content. But the smoke was white. Was it not? Waves of anticipation and pent-up excitement swept through the throng of thousands packing St. Peter's Square, waiting to erupt in jubilant celebration at the announcement of Pope John Paul II's successor. And then the bells began to toll. This was it. The long wait was finally over. The crowd swelled, awaiting the first glimpse of the new pope. And for what seemed like hours we all stared at the curtained doors that lead out onto the balcony high above the Square. Then, at long last, we were introduced to Pope Benedict XVI. Much to our amazement, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany had won. We were witness to history.
There are moments in life that transcend the ordinary, moments that are truly historical, what the assassination of JFK and the first moon landing were to our parents' generation. Two such moments for me: I remember sitting in a classroom -- actually, in a course on race, culture, and politics in the United States -- listening on the radio to the O.J. Simpson verdict. And, of course, I remember 9/11. My mother called that morning and woke me up. I only heard her message, something about horrible images from New York. I got out of bed, turned on the TV, and, stunned, watched as the two towers collapsed, one not long after the other. I spent the rest of day alternating between sadness and disbelief, between feeling too much and feeling nothing at all. I wondered if it wasn't a waking dream from which I would eventually emerge. If only. They were two very different events. The O.J. verdict -- really, the entire case -- represented a cultural nadir in American life, whereas 9/11 was a world-historical tragedy that continues to shape our world. One "not-guilty" man, thousands dead, two transcendent events.
I'm still not sure what the papal election has meant to me. Obsession with another world-historical event, I suppose, but also something more personally meaningful. It seems to have little to do with the man who was actually elected pope -- whom I will address in a forthcoming post -- and more to do with the significance -- the essence -- of the event itself. Of course, there is the obvious: Papal elections don't happen very often, popes are important even beyond the Church, it was a huge media story, etc. That's all true. But, as much as I tried to restrict my attention to the temporal reality of it all -- from the last days of John Paul II to the gruesome death-watch, to the funeral and the days of mourning and back-room politicking, to the gossip, rumours, and idle speculation, to the vain prognostication, the odds, and the self-important guesswork, to the beautiful anachronisms of the conclave and the final announcement to the faithful at St. Peter's and the world beyond -- I could not help but be swept away by the mystery of ancient rites, formal rituals, and, less concretely, the connection to the divine, or to some sense of the divine that has often eluded me. I am, after all, a determined agnostic, if not a committed atheist. I acknowledge the possibility of the divine -- or, to use a more current term, the spiritual -- but I live in the here and now and resist the temptation to admit of anything beyond the temporal. In a sense, the papal election, politics aside, was my own personal "limit situation" that compelled me to confront my mortality and to think about what it is that makes us truly human. Existentialists mean by this an absence of the divine, that is, an acknowledgement of one's mortality within the abyss of the human condition. What I mean is the transcendent of the merely human and the possibility of the divine beyond the human. This may be too much, personal drama upon religious drama, and I do mean to suggest that the papal election -- not to mention the Church and organized religion generally -- was not what it seemed to be on the surface, that is, a fundamentally political event. But I cannot deny, against my own secular predisposition and skeptical presuppositions, that there was more going on.
Hardened secularists and cynics of all stripes deny any such non-political component to this and all human events. For them, there is nothing but the concept of the political, where there are only friends and enemies and where there is only conflict and the struggle for power. To them, this was all about competing elements within the Church vying for power, about Ratzinger vs. Martini vs. Tettamanzi vs. Arinze vs. Hummes vs. Danneels, etc. To an extent, I played along, analyzing the likely papabili and concerning myself with what was at stake and, ultimately, with who would win. Having predicted Tettamanzi, I even found myself quietly rooting for him, if only to justify my own self-importance, or perhaps for Danneels, my personal favourite of all the papabili. I was surprised when Ratzinger's name was announced, but, once it was, all those prior concerns seemed to slide away, leaving only a sense of the magnitude of what was happening and some inexplicable sense of communion with the faithful of a faith that is not my own and with something mysterious beyond myself. Ratzinger may only have been my #2 prediction, but he was the new pope, and that was all that seemed to matter. It was not the culmination of a transformational moment in my life, some epiphany that would redirect the course of my life, but there was something solemnly spiritual about the experience.
The simpletons who live confined to and by the political lack a comprehensive conception of the human, however much they may believe that they have lowered the bar far enough to admit of complete understanding. What they don't seem to realize is that there may be more on heaven and earth, dear Horatio, than is dreamt of in their reductionist philosophy of power. Indeed, what they truly don't realize is that true knowledge means knowing that the only thing that you know is that you know nothing. I have no idea what may lie beyond the realm of the senses, let alone what may lie beyond the temporal generally, but this papal election reminded me that I know very little, if anything at all. While our contemporary sophists keep pushing that rock up their personal hills, contentedly self-delusional and corrupted by know-it-all, eyes-wide-shut claims of absolute understanding, there remains the possibility of living a truly human life by reflecting upon the complexities of human nature and the human condition and by remaining open to the mysteries that may lie just beyond our grasp.