When in Rome

Cum Clave. Or as it is literally translated from the Latin, “with a key.” For in earlier centuries, the election of a new pope, encumbered by all kinds of political interference from the state, was sometimes a challenging proposition indeed, producing at times rather prolonged vacancies of up to three years.

When Pope Gregory X was finally chosen following such a period in 1274, he decreed therefore that in subsequent elections that the cardinals who were responsible for the vote be kept physically locked up and not permitted to leave until they had finished their work. Even their food, supplied through a window to restrict contact with the outside world, was limited, for after three days they received only one dish per day, and after another five days, they just got bread and water!

Of course the Catholic conclave which begins this week in Rome will be a bit different. While the cardinals will remain secluded, with even cell phones and Wi-Fi blocked throughout Vatican City, they at least will get individual rooms this time, and no one is expected to starve during the deliberations. Likewise, although the Sistine Chapel will be sealed, it’s very unlikely that the townspeople around it will actually remove the roof of the building to speed up the election, as the residents of Viterbo did during that three years of impasse before Gregory’s elevation.

The end goal of the process remains the same, however, which raises the question as to what exactly might qualify someone for spiritual leadership such as the office of the pope entails. Clearly, both administrative and spiritual gifts are required, for the church is not only a faith community, it is an enormous political entity in and of itself. The ability to understand both people and processes is thus a critical one, but it must similarly be coupled with a compassion for all that is rooted in the love of God for each of His children, even the disaffected or separated ones.

Much has also been said about the global nature of the Catholic Church, something which Methodists– founded by one who once said that “the world is my parish”–should also understand. Linguistic skills would thus seem be a plus in that regard, for the new pontiff will need to communicate in all kinds of languages and not just the dead ones.

More to the point, however, the pope will need to see himself as a citizen first and foremost not of any earthly nation, but of the Kingdom of God. But then that would seem to be true for any genuine follower of Christ, as well. For the truth is that we are all intended to be “vicars of Christ” on earth, His representatives or “vicarious substitutes” to those around us–indeed, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it, “little Christs,” one to the other.

With more than five thousand media already on the ground in Rome, the world will clearly be watching for the white smoke which will signal that a new pontiff has been selected. But I can’t shake the feeling that the world may be waiting even more for the rest of us to step up and become the kind of authentic believers who can actually impact those around us, no matter what our title or testimony may be.

I have to wonder, in fact, what might happen if they locked us up—cum clave–until we did so.

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