A reflection from Rome

“Praying in Rome” by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan isn’t quite “Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Conclave,” but it’s not that far off. The short e-book by New York’s Archbishop is exactly like one of his talks: candid, funny and deceptively easy on the brain — with a wallop at the end.

At only 50 some pages, it’s a quick read. More like a long magazine article or a really well-transcribed lecture than a book, it delivers exactly what it promises (reflections on the conclave and on electing Pope Francis), no more and no less. It’s not an exposé or a detailed explanation of how a conclave works or what went on at the last one, which in any case is supposed to stay secret forever.

Instead, it’s full of the kind of homey, sometimes self-deprecating observations that have made Cardinal Dolan seem like everyone’s favorite parish priest: The cardinal likes to underline important passages in books and so almost every sentence in his copies of Pope Benedict’s books are underlined; the chairs in the Synod Room at the Paul VI Audience Hall are so small that the less-than-svelte prelate says it “must be one of the most uncomfortable places on the face of the earth.”

Cardinal Dolan also has a storyteller’s eye for just the right detail to make a scene or situation come alive for the reader. Next to the stove in the Sistine Chapel, he says, was a pile of boxes marked fumo nero (black smoke) but only one marked fumo bianco (white smoke) because one box of white smoke is all the cardinals would ever need.

But Cardinal Dolan’s breezy, chatty style can make it easy to miss the profundity of what he has to say. His reflections on the past two popes are short but powerful:

“Every pope does something daring and new,” he says. Blessed Pope John Paul II traveled the world to show that the pontiff is part of it and returned priesthood’s focus to its early roots in discipleship by inviting young men to follow him. Pope Benedict reminded us that faith and reason are inseparable (he includes a pithy, Powerpoint-style list of five essential messages from the Bishop of Rome Emeritus’ writings that every Catholic should memorize). And already, in his estimation, Pope Francis is illuminating the “Deposit of the Faith” in a new way: “returning to the Acts of the Apostles” and the style of Sts. Peter and Paul.

“Both are men of utter simplicity, men who eschew pomp and circumstance for service,” he says. “It’s a return of the very model of the Church to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.”

Personal anecdotes drive home the message: American-style, Cardinal Dolan introduces himself to everyone he meets while many of the European cardinals are more reserved, but the senior and much-admired Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio whispered a quick introduction during a lull in one of the general congregations (meeting times) before the conclave. Hearing that throngs of people are standing in the rain in St. Peter’s Square to see the new pope, the new Holy Father postpones introductions inside to speak to them.

At the installation Mass, the eminent Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn could not stop weeping during the new pope’s homily, saying, “Listen to him, listen to him,” over and over.

What the cardinals were looking for, Cardinal Dolan says, was holiness. He sees it in Pope Francis, and he explains it in terms of the pope’s Jesuit training: “[St. Ignatius] taught that, if you trust the Holy Spirit, and if you put a lot of thought, time, and prayer into making a decision, once you make it — tough as it is — you’ll sense some interior serenity and peace.”

He interprets both former Pope Benedict’s decision to retire and Pope Francis’s calm acceptance of the papacy to that inner calm.

But calm doesn’t mean the absence of change, and Cardinal Dolan ends by saying Pope Francis will require change — not changes in Catholic doctrine, but change in us, in our hearts and in our souls.

That’s the wallop at the end of the chatty homily. A funny thing happened on the way to the conclave, and it’s that the Holy Spirit had already set out a new path for the Church to follow, one that Francis’s papacy is only beginning to reveal. It’s a harder path, but it’s an exciting one.

In Cardinal Dolan’s words, it’s “the most radical change of all.” 

Gail Finke is senior editor of “The Catholic Beat” in Cincinnati.