Thursday, April 14, 2005

Allen’s `Conclave’

``The trash heaps of church history are littered with carcasses of journalists who have tried to predict the next pope.’’ This quote comes from journalist John L. Allen Jr., author of the updated ``Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election’’ and ``All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story on How the Vatican Really Thinks.’’.

Jesuit theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo made sure I got a copy of Allen’s book. I rushed to Loyola House of Studies to claim it.

Allen was the familiar face and voice on TV during the week of the unprecedented global outpouring that led up to Pope John Paul II’s funeral. Allen provided background and context to the CNN reports from the Vatican.

A prize-winning Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, Allen is probably the best-known Vatican writer in the English language. He was described by veteran religion writer Kenneth Woodward as ``the journalist other reporters—and not a few cardinals—look to for the inside story on how all the pope’s men direct the world’s largest church.’’

That’s a plug for journalists as book authors. I am sure many of the cardinal electors now in Rome have Allen’s book under their armpits, or are furtively poring over it outside their meditation time.

Speaking of reading, and if I may digress, I found a rare photo among tens of thousands of JPII photos on the Internet. One shows JPII reading a book, while partly hidden in what looks like a nest of leaves and grass, his figure almost overwhelmed by the green overgrowth around him. (That’s a plug for summer reading which the Inquirer strongly encourages.)

``Conclave’’ is an exciting read in this summer of mourning and expectation. It has none of the arcane language often associated with topics related to the church magisterium. Allen writes vividly and makes the persons and issues come alive. He certainly has a journalist’s eye and ear for the what, where, when, who, how, why and, of course, juicy quotes.

``Conclave’’ has five chapters: What does the pope do, voting issues, how the conclave works, political parties in the college of cardinals, and the profiles of all the candidates, meaning, everybody. Allen devotes a little extra to his Top 10.

To understand why the election of a pope is important, Allen says, we first need to grasp what the pope does. Unfortunately, he adds, there is no job description for the head of the Roman Catholic Church. ``Lots of titles…are of little immediate help: supreme pontiff (pontifex maximus), servant of the servants of God, vicar of Christ, successor of Peter, bishop of Rome, patriarch of the West…

``A 20th-century way to describe the pope might be to say that he is the legal and spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, at one billion members the largest Christian denomination in the world, and certainly the most vertically integrated. One way of putting the point: the pope can push a button in Rome and see something happen in Singapore in ways that the archbishop of Canterbury or the Dalai Lama cannot.

``In reality, however, the demands of the position are far more vast. A modern pope is called upon to be an intellectual, a politician, a pastor, a media superstar, and a Fortune 500 CEO. He must produce complex documents setting out the thinking of the Catholic Church on the most vexing problems that confront humanity.’’

Allen makes it clear that conclaves full of cardinals appointed by the deceased pope, as in the present crop, do not elect photocopies of the man who named them. More often, Allen points out, the opposite holds true: they elect popes who pursue different policies. This is sometimes called the pendulum law of conclave psychology.

``In 1903, for example, the cardinals met to pick a successor to Leo XIII, who had reigned for 25 years. He had been pope so long, one of his own cardinals had famously groaned, `We elected a Holy Father, not an Eternal Father.’ Leo XIII’s pontificate… opened the Catholic Church to the modern age, encouraged scientific biblical studies, launched Catholic social teaching, and moved the church beyond its nostalgic desire to revive a `sacred alliance’ of Catholic monarchies by engaging a cautious détente with secular democracies.’’

The obvious successor for the modernizing project was Leo XIII’s secretary of state, but the conclave chose Giuseppe Sato who, as Pius X, cracked down on modernism.

There is always some frustration and impatience after a long reign, a tendency to straighten some flaws in the old order.

And so Allen sets out to look into ``John Paul II’s unfinished business.’’ The chapter ``Voting Issues’’ lists five: collegiality in the church; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; globalization, poverty and justice; bioethics, sexuality and the family; and, women and laity. I think this is a very important chapter and the heart of the book. What had JPII done in these areas and where will the church go from here?

If you’re the nosy type, the chapter on how the conclave works is for you. Allen even talks about the bedrooms and the toilets of yore. Hear the late Cardinal Basil Hume of England complain that the beds must have come ``from a seminary for very short people.’’ JPII made sure the electors after him do not go through the discomforts his batch experienced in 1978.

Well, as the say, in the end, it will be the Holy Spirit who will guide the election. In one interview, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is asked: ``Do you really believe that the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of the pope?’’ I think his answer is rather interesting.