Consistory Chronicle: Day 3

Ad laudes ominpotentis Dei
et Apostolicae Sedis ornamentum,
Cardinalatus dignitatis insigne
per quod significatur usque ad sanguinis effusionem
pro incremento christianae fidei,
pace et quiete popoli Dei,
libertate et diffusione Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae
vos ipsos intrepidos exhibere debere.

“To the glory of Almighty God and the honour of the Apostolic See, receive the scarlet biretta as a sign of the dignity of the cardinalate, signifying your readiness to act with courage, even to the shedding of your blood, for the increase of the Christian faith, for the peace and tranquillity of the people of God and for the freedom and growth of the Holy Roman Church.”

This is the prayer that the Pontifex Maximus, the great bridge-builder, the pope, made this morning as he elevated seventeen men to the rank of Cardinal. At the very moment when, to a jaundiced eye, a select group of men is assuming great status and power, the actual prayer pronounced over them reminds the candidates that they are being honored precisely for the praise of God and the Holy See, so that they can increase the Christian faith, promote the peace of God’s people and Church. But – and I remember being struck by this at the first consistory I attended – their red hats should remind them that they must do all these things even if it means martyrdom.

Probably the most powerful exhortation to any person assuming any office on the face of the Earth. And it’s worth recalling – amidst all the controversy accompanying this Consistory, the various positions for and against recent actions by the Holy Father, the speculations about why these particular men have been chosen and not others, and global worries about the future of the Church – that this is what it all comes down to: the willingness to die in fidelity to Jesus, like the martyrs of the early Church and in every century, on every continent since. While there is that degree of fidelity to the Good News, all the rest is, as it is said, hay, straw, and stubble.

I’ve given the official texts above in both the Latin and the English for a reason. One of the unfortunate controversies that has arisen in the past few weeks has been precisely over the use of the old Latin Mass, which Pope Francis has been willing to allow for those with some nostalgic attachment, but seems to regard as an aberration – and perhaps something more sinister – among those who did not grow up with it.

The Latin language is not only the language our (his) grandparents prayed in. It’s the language their grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents – going all the way back to the ancient world – experienced in the liturgy. I’ve often said that if we saw Jews abandoning Hebrew as a living part of their tradition, we’d recognize that something was wrong. The same is true of Catholics with respect to Latin. It’s more than a question of grandmothers – whom Francis has often praised as key transmitters of the faith. It’s an objective recognition of our own history.

Men in red . . .
Men in red . . .

That’s one reason even the Vatican uses Latin in these large international events. But there’s another, practical reason. If not Latin, what? In Vatican offices, Italian is the lingua franca by default. But would it be right to use Italian for the global events of the Church? English is spoken far more widely, but even an English speaker might hesitate to make that the common language of the Church internationally.

A global Church needs a global language. And we have one in our own long tradition.

You could not help but be struck by another reality at the ceremony this morning. I’ve been traveling to Rome for four decades, but I’ve never seen the level – and lethality – of security as is evident these days around the Vatican. The secular authorities say that the increased military presence – soldiers armed with automatic weapons in every piazza and at every Metro stop – is only a reflection of their strade sicure (“safe streets”) operation. But everyone in Rome knows that these forces only appeared after the Paris attacks almost exactly one year ago.

And like the presence of Latin, the presence of these soldiers with their armored vehicles at key checkpoints and automatic weapons reminds us of another unfortunate truth: there are those who would be only too happy to take advantage of a crowd of Christians drawn from all over the world to carry out a terrorist attack. These persons are Muslims. Few Muslims, of course, would countenance such a thing, and it would be wrong to suspect them all for the mad murderousness of a few.

But it would be madness of a different kind not to notice that our civilization – the civilization of Europe and America – not only needs people willing to die for it. It needs resolve and strong means in order to defend itself against known malefactors. And this is a question not only at the borders of Europe and America, but at the very entry points of the Vatican – and of public venues all over the Western world.

Fifteen years ago, when I attended my first consistory, I was struck by the prayer that the new cardinals should be prepared to bear witness to Christ, even to the point of death. In those halcyon pre-9/11 days, I both appreciated the sentiment, but thought of it as a remote possibility.

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. Whatever else may be said about the new cardinals created today, several of them are on the frontlines where lives are easily lost. And it’s a good reminder for every Christian that the days when we may have believed such things only happened in times and places far away are long gone.

We’re all on the front lines now, and must be prepared to discover how close Christians always are to their heroic brothers and sisters who, like Christ, shed their blood across ages so that we today might know and live the Good News.    

 

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