Cardinal’s conclave talk anticipated election of Pope Francis

On March 12, millions around the world watched the start of the conclave that elected Pope Francis. One of the most memorable moments was the ceremonial closing of the doors of the Sistine Chapel by the papal master of ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini. It was a riveting scene, and while many viewers focused on the famed doors, they likely missed the diminutive cardinal standing patiently behind Msgr. Marini just inside the entrance of the chapel.

The cardinal, Prosper Grech, was an 87-year-old Augustinian from Malta who had been named to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. A famed expert in the Church Fathers, he was ineligible to participate in the conclave as he was older than 80. Nevertheless, he was chosen for a very important job: a final spiritual exhortation to the cardinal electors before they began their deliberations. After giving his talk, Cardinal Grech was escorted out of the Sistine Chapel and waited with the rest of the world for the results of the vote.

Embracing the Cross

The text of his reflection, delivered in Italian, was recently published in what is called the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official published record of the actions, statements and documents of the Holy See. Five months into the pontificate of Pope Francis, it is possible to ponder Cardinal Grech’s exhortation in light of the choice of the cardinals and how accurate the cardinal was in his assessment of the needs of the Church at this particular moment in history.

Cardinal Grech

Cardinal Grech began by stressing that he did not intend to provide an “identikit of the new pope, and even less to propose a plan of action for the future pontiff,” as that delicate task belongs, he said, to the Holy Spirit.

Still, the cardinal gave an unflinching look at the state of the Church and modern world, using both biblical imagery and blunt language that anticipated the plain-spoken style of the man who was chosen by the cardinals the next day, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

Cardinal Grech, for example, reminded the cardinals that they must present the Gospel without compromise, for when one compromises, the Gospel is emptied of its power — much he says, like a hand grenade with the TNT removed.

This danger is seen especially in relativizing the person of Christ by placing him alongside other “saviors” and neglecting to proclaim “the scandal of the Cross.” Preaching the absurdity of the Cross, he noted, was the reason that Christianity “in less than 300 years reduced to the minimum the religions of the Roman Empire and opened the minds of men to a new view of hope and resurrection. It is for the same hope that the modern world is thirsting, suffering from an existential depression.”Christ crucified, he argued, is tied intimately to the Church crucified, the Church of the martyrs. We must embrace the Cross, but we must also remember that persecution is not always physical. There is also persecution through lies.

Uproot evil, divisions

But sometimes a difficult truth is also spoken to the Church, and at such times, Cardinal Grech proclaimed, the Church must face the truth, as has happened in many of the accusations of pedophilia. “Then,” he said emphatically, “we must humble ourselves before God and men, and seek to uproot the evil at all costs, as did Benedict XVI, to his great sorrow.” This is crucial, Grech proposed, because “only in this way can we regain credibility before the world and give an example of sincerity. Today many people do not arrive at believing in Christ because his face is obscured or hidden behind an institution that lacks transparency.”

Once again, he anticipated perfectly the concerns of the future Pope Francis.

Equally, much as Francis has spoken vividly about the devil in his first months, so did Cardinal Grech cite “the evil spirit of the world, the ‘mysterium iniquitatis’ (2 Thes 2:7)” that strives constantly to infiltrate the Church. And one of the fruits of that evil is also one of hardest tasks for the next pope: keeping unity in the Church. He spoke bluntly about “ultratraditionalist extremists and ultraprogressive extremists, between priests who rebel against obedience and those who do not recognize the signs of the times.”

He zeroed in especially on the need to present dogma with a valid hermeneutic that speaks intelligibly to the contemporary world and that avoids proposals to change the Church that are based in notions of sexual freedom.

“Certainly,” he said, “laws and traditions that are purely ecclesiastical can be changed, but not every change means progress. It must be discerned whether such changes act to increase the holiness of the Church or to obscure it.”

Evangelical zeal

Cardinal Grech thus admits that in the West, at least in Europe, the Christian faith itself is in crisis with a rampant ignorance not only of Catholic doctrine, but even “the ABC’s of Christianity.” Again anticipating Pope Francis’ approach, he stressed the urgency of “a new evangelization that begins from pure kerygma (proclamation of the Good News) and plain proclamation to nonbelievers, followed by a continual catechesis nourished by prayer.”

Just as Pope Francis has shown particular concern for the faith of the individual believer, so, too, did Cardinal Grech remind the cardinals not to overlook the reality that the “coals of devout faith are kept alive by millions of simple faithful who are far from being called theologians but who in the intimacy of their prayers, reflections and devotions can give profound advice to their pastors.”

His plea for authenticity in the Faith; a humble, transparent and servant Church; unity; the role of the laity and a commitment to the New Evangelization echoed profoundly much that had been discussed among the cardinals in the days leading up to the conclave. They were also key themes stressed by Cardinal Bergoglio in his time as archbishop in Buenos Aires. Looking back on the words of the last preacher to speak before the cardinals cast their ballots, Cardinal Grech spoke for the majority of the cardinals who voted for Cardinal Bergoglio. 

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.