Holy Spirit

Francis I--Could He Have Said NO?

Almost as soon as Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was announced as Pope Francis I, the speculation began. There was some knowledge of who he was. After all, he placed second in the last conclave, behind Cardinal Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI. But what kind of Pope Francis will be, remains unknown. Still, this has not prevented the Papal watchers and pundits from filling the airwaves with predictions, most of which will almost certainly be proved false, for once elected, the Pope is beholden to no man. The ability to alter Church teaching, and, consequently history, resides uniquely with him.

I thought it would be a nice break to step back from speculation and discuss what we know. Let’s start with the question, “Could Bergoglio have said no?” This is not an idle query. It originates from a conversation I once had with another bishop. He was lamenting that the job of being bishop was not what he expected. He felt that the administrative demands of his office removed him too far from pastoral ministry to the people of God. He felt disconnected from the priestly work that he so loved.

In our conversation, I asked why he did not say no. His response? He was not given the opportunity. Of course, such a response is nonsense. No one can force another to become a bishop. And yet, as difficult as it might be to understand, there is a theological concept at work here. In Catholic belief, the selection of bishops (and popes) is guided by the Holy Spirit.

When one looks back over Church history, it is difficult not to conclude that the Holy Spirit has made some mistakes. I do not speak merely as a liberal unhappy with the conservative appointments that have dominated the hierarchy in recent years. There simply have been bad choices over the centuries, e.g. Urban VI. Still, I admit that the word “mistake” might be too harsh. Perhaps an analogy would be better.

The Holy Spirit is probably the hardest working person of the Blessed Trinity. As such, she deserves an occasional vacation. If the selection of a bishop or pope occurs during that respite, so be it. But really. I don’t care how hard the Holy Spirit works. Isn’t 35 years a long enough vacation? She should get back to work. Anyway, it seems that whether or not the Holy Spirit guides papal conclaves, Cardinal Bergoglio could have said, “No”. And yet…

There is another side to this question. 77 votes were required to elect a pope at this conclave. If Bergoglio had said no, his supporters would have lined up behind someone else, probably pushing the man with the next highest number of votes over the top. Who was that runner up? Who else might have been elected?

Since the Sistine Chapel was sealed off last week, after having been swept for any kind of electronic bugs, no 47% video will be surfacing. But is anything ever secret anymore? One piece of information has seeped from behind the walls of that ancient edifice. A block of cardinals numbering a mere 25 (22%) had banded together to re-elect Benedict XVI. Although 25 is far short of the required 77, it is possible that Bergoglio’s refusal would have shifted some of his supporters to the 25? That 22% might have become 47%, then 50% + 1. That alone is reason to rejoice in Bergoglio’s acceptance.

Benedict’s resignation was an unexpected step forward. His re-election would have been an unwelcome step backward. If the Holy Spirit does, indeed, guide papal elections, then I want to be among the first to welcome her back to work. I am in no position to advise the Holy Spirit, but as many cardinals and bishops approach retirement and death, they will need to be replaced. I humbly want to suggest that she not take any more of these long vacations. The Catholic Church has need for forward looking and theologically liberated bishops.

Let’s hope we have reason to rally around Pope Francis I.

Let’s hope we have reason to celebrate that Bergoglio did not say no!