Finding God’s choice

For those who were there, April 2005 in Rome will always be remembered as a month in which one lived a year’s worth of experiences almost every day.

The memories are still fresh: memories of seeing John Paul II, his face serene and at rest, on the bier in the Sala Clementina of the apostolic palace; memories of waking up at 6:30 a.m. on April 5 to find about 50,000 people filling the entire street on which I was living, the line of mourners stretching from the Vatican’s Sant’Anna Gate to the Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber; memories of the vast throng at the papal funeral doing something that hadn’t been done in fourteen hundred years — spontaneously proclaiming the man they had come to mourn “John Paul the Great”; memories of conversations with cardinal-electors pondering the needs of the Church, the world, and the papacy after the twenty-six and a half remarkable years of Karol Wojtyla; and, of course, memories of the electric atmosphere when St. Peter’s Square erupted in applause at the announcement that Joseph Ratzinger would be Pope Benedict XVI.

In my new book, God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins), I try to recapture some of the human flavor, spiritual passion, and political texture of those days, in an effort to understand what John Paul II meant and what Benedict XVI might mean.

The title, perhaps provocative, evokes a comment made by Cardinal Ennio Antonelli of Florence earlier this year. Antonelli remarked that God had already chosen the next pope; the cardinals’ job was to discern who among them was God’s choice. That approach reflects John Paul II’s conviction that the Holy Spirit is the chief protagonist in the complex conclave process. Others take a rather more restrained view, arguing that the job of the Holy Spirit is to insure that whoever is elected does not destroy the deposit of faith entrusted to his care; as Joseph Ratzinger once put it, “Probably the only assurance [the Spirit] offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.” It’s the kind of divergence of opinion that makes a conclave so utterly compelling, its human dynamics as various and fascinating as the number of cardinal-electors.

Drawing on my conversations with several of those electors, as well as other sources in Rome, I try, in God’s Choice, to recreate the drama of the conclave so that it becomes clear why Joseph Ratzinger was elected, and so quickly. For the story of the conclave is not just the story of the balloting inside the Sistine Chapel (which, in this instance, was quick and to the point). It’s also the story of the conversations that took place all over Rome between John Paul’s funeral and Benedict’s election. It’s the story of the various forces, including Church movements and the media, which tried to influence the cardinals’ choice. And it’s the story of how one man’s calm, intelligent leadership quickly led to the conclusion that he was, in fact, “God’s choice” for the office of Peter.

God’s Choice is more than a memoir, however. In the book, I offer a global analysis of “the Church that John Paul II left behind,” as well as a mini-biography of Joseph Ratzinger and a sketch of what seem to me to be the major issues facing the new pope. Among the latter, I discuss at some length proposals for the redesign of the Roman Curia, for a new strategic dialogue with Islam, for a rethinking of the Church’s approach to world politics, and for a reform of the process and criteria by which bishops are chosen.

The happiness Benedict XVI displayed on being presented “to the city and the world” on April 19 was not the happiness of a man who had finally gotten something he wanted; as I show in God’s Choice, Joseph Ratzinger emphatically did not want to be pope. It was, however, the happiness of a man who had been liberated to be himself. God’s Choice will, I hope, illuminate some of the surprises that liberated man may have for the Church and the world.

COMING UP: From the wilderness to the Promised Land: Learn your faith in the SJV Lay Division

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One of the famous episodes in the Old Testament is the wandering of Israel in the wilderness. The descendants of Abraham, whom God promised land to come to his descendants, wander for 40 years before they enter that land. A time of great miracles, to be certain – the manna in the wilderness, the rock that gushed forth water. But also a time of hardship and death – many battles that were lost, plagues that come up on the people. All of which is why the wilderness is associated with a time of great testing in the Scriptures.

We may seem like we are in our own wilderness today, aimlessly wandering without a sense of where life is going. Know that we, too, at the Lay Division of the Seminary, particularly our Biblical and Catechetical School instructors, intimately felt this great testing this past academic year. For the first time ever, we had classes online, by sheer force of circumstance in a world of coronavirus restrictions. In many ways, we felt our own desert wondering – unable to see students in person, unable to have normal interactions with students, lecturing to a little dot on a computer screen, seeing black screens with everybody muted, with no idea if students were smiling, laughing, crying, sleeping, or whatever else may be! This was, in many respects, wandering in the wilderness institutionally. Thankfully, the one thing that we can say for certain is that all of our lives fall under God’s infinitely wise, lovingly providential hand. It’s not merely cliché to say that God will bring good out of evil, but a true statement. And so we trust. God knows, and God takes care of all those who are faithful. And God works all things for good for those who trust in Him.

This upcoming academic year will be the start of a slow reintegration of our classes into parishes. However, we will still keep an online presence, with half of our classes returning to in-person locations throughout the Archdiocese of Denver and half remaining online. Certainly one of the positives about teaching classes online, and perhaps the good that God will bring for us institutionally out of our wilderness of this past year, is that it allows for expansion to reach potential students who otherwise aren’t capable of attending our in-person classes. Given that, taking a class with us will never be easier! It doesn’t matter what part of Colorado you live in — you can take a class online with us!

If you’ve never heard of who we are, then let me briefly introduce our institution: we are the Lay Division at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary for the Archdiocese of Denver. This makes our seminary unique: not just the formation of future clerics, but also a division dedicated to the formation of the laity. Our mission is to put people in contact and communion with Jesus, who alone leads us to the heart of the Father in the Spirit. We do this through various offerings which study God’s call to each and every person to have a personal relationship with him in the Church that he established with the Precious Blood of Jesus. Our two flagship programs are the Denver Catholic Biblical School, a four year study of the Sacred Scriptures, and the Denver Catholic Catechetical School, a two year study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We also offer various other programs of study – year long “Enrichment Courses” in different topics of the faith, short courses throughout the year, lecture series throughout the liturgical seasons, and day-long workshops. Wherever you’re at in your faith, we have something for everybody!

Classes for this upcoming year begin on Monday, Sept. 13. Visit sjvlaydivision.org to see all of the options for classes, locations/online times, information sessions, and to register. Make the choice to study with us to learn your faith and come to know and love Jesus Christ!