My daily Mass resolutions have been flagging these past few months, but I got it together enough to go today. My stated intention was to pray for the conclave and in particular for my "adopted" cardinal (I can't pronounce his name so I just call him "K.N."). But I found my thoughts wandering.
Last night I had dinner with a friend who, last fall, was trying to figure out if she should leave the Protestant faith of her parents and become Catholic. She spoke freely of her interest at the time, and asked me many questions. I did what I could to encourage her—lent her books, offered her my prayers—but as we sat at dinner last night I knew she had decided not to convert. She said nothing about it, but it was evident in her silence, so different from our last meeting.
I thought of her today, and I thought of our friends Dean and Morgan; Dean is entering the Church this Easter but Morgan has decided to wait—to learn more, to pray more and study more. I thought of something I had said to her when we talked on the phone last week, as she worried if she had made the right decision: "God has a plan for you that is different from His plan for anyone else. Don't measure yourself against Dean or Frank or anybody else. Every person is on his or her own timeline."
I thought, too, of something our former Holy Father said in an interview before he became pope. "How many ways are there to get to Heaven?" a reporter asked him, expecting he would say only one: the Catholic Church. But instead he answered, "As many as there are people." Think of that—each of us, on our own time and in our own way, drawn by grace towards the God who loves us. That's one of my favorite quotes. I repeated it to Morgan and she said she found it comforting.
I thought of all these things, my mind whirling as I sat in church, and then turned my attention to the Scriptures. In the first reading the angel led Ezekiel through a river that got higher and higher til he could no longer cross. I thought of the necessity of faith—of taking a plunge through the unknown in confidence that God will carry you.
But it was the psalm that really caught my attention. The congregation repeated, "The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob." Such powerful words. I thought of Jacob, picturing a long-bearded patriarch in an ancient era. What a marvel that we share the same faith—a faith as old as humankind, a current that has run across millenia without pause.
I thought of what we Catholics believe happens in a papal conclave; that the Holy Spirit guides the cardinals to choose the successor of St. Peter, the rock upon which Christ built His Church. The path of the Christian Church has taken many twists and turns, as those called to serve God's people often fail at the task; Jacob himself knew a little of those failures in his brothers' sins against him. But he knew, too, the experience of brotherhood in faith, and he knew what it was to have a place in a mighty tradition that existed before us and will continue to exist long after we are gone.
Then I thought of what it means to have a place in the Christian tradition. For a moment, I mentally left my spot in the pew at St. Aloysius and allowed myself a vision of all the noontime Masses going on throughout Washington, D.C. Then I thought of all the noontime Masses throughout the world—and of Masses this morning and this afternoon and evening too, in places like Italy, Nigeria, and Hong Kong, and Trenton, New Jersey, too. All around the world, countless Catholic men and women are kneeling in prayer today, uniting our prayers in an appeal for God to guide our cardinals. Today is not just, as secular sources say, about "history in the making." It's about the making of individual souls—Dean's and Frank's and Morgan's, and yours and mine too—as each of us will be forever changed when God gives us a new Holy Father, the vicar of Christ on earth.
And with that, my thoughts finally centered on the cardinals in Rome today, who like Jacob play a role in this great human pageant that is at once blink-of-an-eye brief and immortal as each human soul. For every man casting a vote today, there are millions more Christians whose prayers are with them. I hope those cardinals know—I hope they share that vision I had at Mass today—of the combined offering of the faithful on their behalf. I trust they know, and feel bolstered and supported by the knowledge. As we wait for the white smoke, we keep praying, uniting with each other and with our cardinals in a worldwide beseeching and a worldwide trusting. While we ask discernment for our cardinals, we don't worry. We know that what we need, God will give us.