In the presence of the entire College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 85, the Dean of the College (he did not enter the Conclave to vote, because he is past the age of 80), delivered the homily “Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice” (“For the Election of the Roman Pontiff”) in St. Peter’s Basilica — the last homily before the cardinals enter the Conclave to vote for a new Pope.

The essence of this homily is in the final four paragraphs.

Some of the passages in the homily are quite lovely. Sodano speaks of Christ’s last words to Peter, when he asked Peter to “Feed my lambs.”

And Sodano emphasizes the fact that the role of the Pope, responding to this request of Christ to Peter is “a service of love towards the Church and towards all humanity.”

This is true, and inspiring.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, presides over the Pro Eligendo Pontifice Mass (Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff) in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 12.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, presides over the Pro Eligendo Pontifice Mass (Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff) in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 12.

However, the core of the homily’s message, expressed in the last four paragraphs, seems to offer a vision of the Church’s role in the world with a slightly different emphasis than the vision Pope Benedict XVI has been expressing in recent weeks and throughout his pontificate. And this is the case even though Sodano quotes Benedict in his homily on precisely this point.

Benedict XVI has emphasized the centrality, not of action of any type, including an action of service, but rather of a personal encounter, the encounter with Jesus Christ and what this encounter means for the eternal destiny of a man — a being with an eternal soul.

One might say that Benedict’s emphasis has been “ontological,” that is, on what a man is, on man’s being, on what human beings are essentially, rather than on what a man does, what he produces or makes… on man’s being rather than his acting.

Sodano’s message seems to prize acting rather than being.

Sodano, in particular, stresses the role of the Pope in supporting and carrying forward “good initiatives for people and for the international community.”

Sodano sums up his message to the cardinals with this sentence: “Let us pray that the future Pope may continue this unceasing work on the world level.”

This is the “signature phrase” in this homily.

Now Sodano is the Dean of the College of Cardinals and a career Vatican diplomat. And the role of the Pope and the Church in working for peace and justice in the world is important.

But that role presupposes a prior experience: the experience of encountering the risen Christ, the Savior, an experience of repentance and conversion leading to a new life in Christ which transcends the life of man in this world, an experience which includes the life of the sacraments and the path, through self-sacrifice, toward personal holiness.

The vision Sodano is sketching is of a role for the papacy and the Church as a partner with other governments and institutions in bringing about peace and justice in the world.

This vision is not wrong, but it is partial.

No homily can contain everything in a few brief minutes.

But in a homily only hours before the first vote of the Conclave, the lack of emphasis on the mystical role of the Church in a process which leads ultimately (as Eastern Orthodox theology especially emphasizes) through union with Christ to the very “divinization” of man, the very sharing by man of the divine life, is a lack and a disappointment.

It is not that the homily contains anything that is wrong, but rather that its vision seems so focused on the temporal sphere, on actions in this world.

In this sense, it appears to be an opportunity missed.

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