Today the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church celebrated Mass together in St. Peter’s Basilica, before entering the Sistine Chapel. There is a strong Catholic sense that all the important moments of life should be connected to Mass, and so it is almost taken for granted that the Conclave would begin with the celebration of Mass.
What struck me most about the celebration of Mass today was how much the whole celebration felt like a prayer. There were two other Papal Masses in which I felt a strong sense of prayer: one was the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and the other was his beatification. Of course, the Mass always is a prayer, but in St. Peter’s today it felt like a prayer. As the Cardinals processed into the Basilica, dressed in red chasubles with white mitres, there was no handshaking or “nice to see you;” the Cardinals gave nods and smiles to familiar faces but the seriousness of this moment in the life of the Catholic Church was not lost on them, and it was obvious to the people who were attending,
The whole experience deepend my appreciation for what the Mass is and what it should be: prayer. As a priest, you do not simply say Mass bu tyou end up leading the congregation through Mass. This is automatic and mostly unspoken: people subconsciously take their cues from the priest.
When we started a Sunday night youth Mass in the parish about five years ago, I decided that the Mass would have a strongly contemplative mood, meaning that the way that I would celebrate the Mass and the music that we would choose would lean in that direction. A lot of people were mystifid by the concept because they expected that a Youth Mass needed to have lots of energy, it needed to be up-beat, and it needed to have attention-grabbing gimmics. The first Mass was a little rocky: I was nervous and people did not expect a Youth Mass to be so…low key.
After a few months people let go of some of their expectations and I started seeing the same faces – especially young faces – over and over again. The contemplative mood fit perfectly with the Sunday evening time as the sun is setting and the weekend was winding down. The contemplative mood was also the mood that I personally was most comfortable with, and this helped everyone to feel comfortable there.
Now, after a few years of experience and celebrating the Mass a number of ways, I have realized the key reason why this Mass worked: because the Holy Mass is prayer. If I had wanted to make it into something else – a rally or a concert – it would have taken a lot of effort every week to ‘produce’ the Youth Mass. Since I wanted it to be contemplative, we just slipped into the natural rhythm of the Mass.
When we fail to recognize that Mass is prayer, the solemnity and the slow pace easily becomes boring; we look for something to spice it up and music like Latin chant is the last thing we want. Once we realize that this is supposed to be prayer, the slow pace and the solemnity is perfect, and the first music we want is something simple and calming, that will not distract us from prayer.
What connection does prayer have to the election of a Pope? In a word, everything. It would not be accurate to say that prayer is an important part of the life of the Church: it is more accurate to say that prayer is the life of the Church. In the election of a Pope, the Cardinals need to choose the best man, but the Church has a very specific idea of what this means. The best man is not the one who stands out, or the one who is respected by everyone, or the one who impresses voters; the best man is the one God has chosen.
The isolation of the Cardinals, the careful and deliberate balloting, the oaths that they take, are all in place in order to push back the expectations of the world, and to silence the prejudices and imperfections (yes, even the sins) of the Cardinals. Around this all, the Church places prayer, in order to ask God that into this space which we have created for Him, He will send the Holy Spirit, to guide the Cardinals to choose the man God has already chosen +