What must the Cardinals think as they file into the Sistine Chapel today for another day of making history? They are in the center of a room adorned with paintings by one of the world’s great masters. Above they see the creation of Adam, with God in his swirling robes touching him into life. From the beginning of the drama of salvation, the stories are arrayed before them and then at the end of the chapel is the great end of all time: the final judgement: the Great Doom.
In that room they have the whole mystery of history laid out before them. Furthermore, they are located just a few hundred yards from the site of the Vatican Circus, where in Roman times the games were held and where St Peter himself was crucified before his body was taken and lain to rest in the Vatican cemetery on the nearby hillside. What must they be thinking as they take part in such momentous events, for like St Peter, they too are ordinary men who have come to Rome. Peter’s death and burial at the time, was just another senseless murder by a band of cruel and heartless people, and his burial was there in just a pauper’s grave in the part of the cemetery reserved for slaves and criminals.
Yet now there rises on the site one of the great buildings of human civilization and one of the greatest monuments to a nobody (in the world’s terms) that the world have ever seen. What a strange and mysterious story, that a humble fisherman from Galilee would rise over and above and last for millennia longer than the Emperors themselves…that their successors would die out through murder, insanity, warfare and disease, but his successors continued through persecution from without and corruption from within and still go from strength to strength.
The world powers have already written the obituary for the Catholic Church, but the church is young and the church is strong. What the cardinals will share together is that in the Sistine Chapel they will see their brothers from the developing world. They minister to the poor and the forgotten, the slaves and outcasts of our own society, and what the world cannot see, as Nero could not see, is that the future belongs to them just as the future belonged to Peter for the church is not the church of the powerful, the rich and the great, but it is the church of the poor, the lowly and the downtrodden. They are our strength, and as St Lawrence knew, they are our treasure.
My prayer today is that the Cardinals will know again these truths and that they will choose a pope who knows these truths–a pope that knows in the midst of the world’s power and glory the power of the church are the weak and the glory of the church are the poor. The worldlings can see only the splendid setting of the Sistine chapel, the marble halls and the tiled floors, the frescos and the finery, the robes and the ritual.
What I can see is that the chapel is actually a simple fishing boat, and one of those men is going to be asked to step out of the boat, walk on the waves, leave his nets and become the master of the mystery of history and the next fisher of men.