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Holy Spirit's Role in the Election of a Pope

Interview With Father Paul O'Callaghan

ROME, APRIL 19, 2005 (Zenit) - Watching news reports on the conclave, many Catholics are asking themselves: Who is the Holy Spirit and what is his role in the conclave?

We asked Father Paul O'Callaghan, dean of the Faculty of Theology of the University of the Holy Cross, to talk about the main protagonist of the conclave.

Q: So many are calling on the Holy Spirit these days. Do you think that he is invoked only in very important moments?

Father O'Callaghan: I am convinced the Holy Spirit is active always in the Church and the world, and has been so in a singular way over recent weeks. When John Paul II attempted to speak at the "urbi et orbi" blessing on Easter morning, Paul's words to the Romans came to mind: "The Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words."

Watching the enormous multitudes patiently waiting their turn to catch a fleeting glance at the body of the Pope laid out in St. Peter's Basilica, I was struck by the fact that they did so under no constraint whatsoever, simply because they wanted to do so: "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." With patience and good manners: "God's love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit."

Seeing the many who joyfully received the sacrament of reconciliation, Jesus' words come naturally to mind: "Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven."

And of course, looking at the extraordinary variety among the mourners, it was easy to think of the Acts of the Apostles, often called the Gospel of Holy Spirit: "Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia." There was wondrous variety, but only "one Spirit."

It is true that Christians, generally speaking, invoke the Holy Spirit on special occasions. Whether they do so or not, however, the Holy Spirit acts always: powerfully, incisively, silently, inspiring prayer, freedom, love, conversion, variety, unity. And there is no reason to think that the Spirit will not act during the days coming up to the conclave and during the conclave itself. With an important proviso, however.

The effectiveness of the Spirit's action depends on human collaboration, intelligence and effort. And we humans are perfectly capable of resisting the Spirit, of saddening the Spirit.

The cardinal electors are by no means exonerated from reflecting deeply on all the implications of the momentous decision they are called to make. John Paul II, in his 1986 encyclical, "Dominum et Vivificantem," spoke of the Spirit that purifies the world of sin. It is clear that the Spirit brings believers to overcome the "spirit of the world."

And in "Universi Dominici Gregis" he wrote: "I earnestly exhort the cardinal electors not to allow themselves to be guided, in choosing the Pope, by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favor or personal relationships towards anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear or the pursuit of popularity. Rather, having before their eyes solely the glory of God and the good of the Church, and having prayed for divine assistance, they shall give their vote to the person, even outside the College of Cardinals, who in their judgment is most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way."

Nor may the rest of the faithful remain passive. When St. Peter was in prison, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, "earnest prayer for him was made to God by the Church." Through persevering prayer all Christians partake very directly in the election of the new Pope.

Indeed many of those who pray assiduously these days will perceive the conclave as a truly "democratic" event. In a sense, Christians will have the Pope they deserve.

Nonetheless, we should implore God in his mercy to give us not just the Pope we deserve, but the one our world really needs, racked as it is by strife and despair and disbelief. As we read at Mass, "Look not at our sins, but on the faith of your Church."

Q: Why is the Holy Spirit associated with the conclave and not also the Trinitarian figure of the Father and the Son?

Father O'Callaghan: It is quite clear that the action of the Holy Spirit is none other than that of the Father and the Son. Three Persons, One Being: that is the mystery of the Trinity. The Father acts through the Son in the Holy Spirit.

However, from the morning of Pentecost onwards, Christians were convinced that the Church is a living organism driven by the Holy Spirit. It makes sense that special moments throughout its earthly pilgrimage would experience the consoling and strengthening power of the Spirit. When the Council of Jerusalem was celebrated, for example, the Holy Spirit was invoked.

Besides, according to Scripture, the Holy Spirit is said to mould the life of Christ the Eternal Son in each and every believer, crying out in their hearts that they are children of the eternal Father.

The term "Christ" means "anointed," and Jesus is indeed the one anointed by God's Spirit. One of the titles commonly given to the Pope is the "Vicar of Christ." Becoming Pope, therefore, will involve a special outpouring of the Spirit. Another title given to the successor of Peter is "Holy Father." Jesus himself said that "I will not leave you orphans. I will pray to the Father and he will give you another consoler, to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth."

And the fact is that John Paul II has been a powerful spiritual Father figure, over the last quarter of a century, for far more people than would be prepared to admit it. Perhaps that is why we miss him so much.

Q: What is the origin of the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus," and when is it sung?

Father O'Callaghan: The hymn is from the end of the ninth century. Though sometimes attributed to St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, or Rabanus Maurus, the author is actually unknown. Pope Leo IX intoned it publicly at the Council of Rheims.

It is commonly sung on special occasions when the Church seeks the protection and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is also used in vespers on Pentecost Sunday.

Q: Could a greater devotion to the Holy Spirit be cultivated among the faithful?

Father O'Callaghan: Christian spirituality necessarily involves a real and continuous openness to the Holy Spirit, what spiritual writers call docility. Doubtless, Christians should cultivate a more conscious devotion to the Spirit, among other reasons because the Spirit will never force our response, but gently, and insistently, inspire, encourage and purify us.

Privileged moments to cultivate devotion to the Spirit include: the celebration of the Eucharist -- according to St. Irenaeus, nowhere else is the Spirit more active; silent, recollected prayer; meditating Scripture, which was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; contemplating the life of Mary, whose life was entirely open to the Spirit; giving thanks to God for all his gifts -- the Spirit is the "personification" of gift within the Trinity; generous self-giving to others; asking for guidance when we are not sure how to act; personal reconciliation with God.

Q: You are dean of the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, founded by St. Josemaría Escrivá. Did he speak often of the Holy Spirit?

Father O'Callaghan: Most of the above reflections, if not all of them, are drawn from the writings and life of St. Josemaría Escrivá.

One other thing does come to mind, however. The founder of Opus Dei often said that the Holy Spirit is the fruit of the Cross. Hence the University "of the Holy Cross."

John tells us that the Spirit was sent when Jesus died, rose again and returned to the Father. We have seen it these days: The outpouring of God's Spirit was associated with John Paul II's protracted suffering, with the uncomplaining suffering of those who came to Rome to pay their final respects, and waited for hours to be present at the funeral Mass.

As the Holy Father pointed out during the canonization of St. Josemaría in 2002, prayer and sacrifice always go hand in hand to make apostolic action effective.

Witnessing the outpouring of the Spirit these days, we have all the reasons in the world to expect, as John Paul II often said: "God is preparing a great springtime for Christianity."


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Pope, Election, Conclave, Vatican, Cardinals, O'Callaghan

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