Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome
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Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT

The purpose of the interregnum

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Rome, the city that just yesterday was one long pile of empty water bottles, old newspapers and plastic bags from the banks of the Tiber to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica is quiet today. The papal crypt is still closed to visitors so the 300,000 tourists that packed into St. Peter’s Square and the other almost two million packed along the tiny side streets for the funeral have gone home. The regular masses of mourning, with much smaller crowds in attendance, have begun.

Journalists, of course, from every part of the world packed up their equipment and took down their  klieg lights before St. Peter’s Square had even emptied–many of them racing against time between a papal funeral in Italy and a royal wedding in England. Piazza Navona, the natives tell you with a sigh of relief, belongs to the backpackers again.

It’s raining a miserably cold April mist here, and the chairs of the sidewalk cafes are sodden and empty.
Read Joan Chittister's weekly columns
Previous and current columns from An American Catholic in Rome

Adolescence or adulthood: which? Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
And he shall be called . . .  Posted April 20, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
I missed the smoke; I got the idea Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
The underside of the issue Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT
Antigone or Ismene: The new choice Posted April 15, 2005 at 6:24 a.m. CDT
Win a couple, lose a couple Posted April 13, 2005 at 2:05 p.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations Posted  
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
The purpose of the interregnum Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Be aware of Greeks bearing gifts
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
He was the grandfather of their souls Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
Poignant and paradoxical Posted April 7, 2005 at 8:09 a.m. CDT

Two years ago this week, Sr. Chittister began writing a weekly Web column for NCR. Click on this link to read From Where I Stand by Sr. Joan Chittister,OSB.

Everything is back to normal. Almost.  Except for one thing. There is an empty feeling in the air, a kind of Holy Saturday moment when the church is open but the tabernacle is empty.

The fact is that the lights are still out in the Papal apartment overlooking the Square. The Cardinals–and the world–are still facing one of the most suspense-ridden conclaves of modern history. And the Vatican, that secrecy capital of the world which insisted that journalists who wanted to know what scripture readings would be used at the Papal funeral needed a password for the Vatican website in order to get them, has ‘invited’ journalists not to interview Cardinals about the kind of pope they think world needs now.

One priest on a BBC “Sunday Morning Show” defended the situation as Rome’s “not wanting to politicize a spiritual event” –a worthy motive–because they were ‘seeking the will of God”–a not so worthy explanation of this new turn of affairs if it is meant to imply that the rest of the world, simply because it wants to hear some discussion of the question, does not. Whoever is elected will be the Pope of the whole church, after all, not simply the Pope of the curia. People want to talk about it. Or, as a friend of mine once said, “A papal interregnum is the only time in which Catholics get to be adults.”

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As a result, however, serious papal analysts have taken to interviewing one another–or listening in on Cardinals’ sermons in the hope that the celebrant’s interpretation of the word of God might be some clue to their own hopes for the papacy in a world such as this.  Cardinal Bernard Law, past leader of the diocese of Boston and now Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four major churches of Rome, for instance, will preside at one of the nine required suffrage masses, the “Novembialis,” tomorrow. At least half the congregation there, bookmakers may surely safely assume, will almost certainly be journalists or journalists’ assistants, notebooks open and pens poised, in the hope that at least one word or phrase will reveal some kind of hint about the presently desired will of God.

What must be remembered, however, is that papal elections are almost routinely exercises in balancing the ‘will of God’ from one era to the next. One papacy, history demonstrates, is almost never a clone of the one before it. On the contrary. Every papacy creates its own questions and unresolved issues. Consequently, most new papacies become answers to the unanswered questions or  dissonant issues of the papacy before it.

The three major characteristics of this past papacy were voice, outreach and centralized authority. All over this town tonight-- around the world, perhaps--people are naming the issues they believe must emerge in a new papacy if the unfinished business of the church is ever to be brought back into balance. And I bet you are, too. So let’s.

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