By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Unlike Synods of Bishops, consistories don’t typically carry formal themes. But if one were looking to spot a scarlet thread (if you’ll pardon the pun) running through this gathering of cardinals and new cardinals in Rome, it would probably be ecumenism.
The search for Christian unity was the principal topic for discussion during the business meeting of cardinals with the pope on Friday, and Benedict XVI returned to the theme in his homily for this morning’s “Ring Mass,” in which each of the 23 new cardinals received the ring which, along with the crimson biretta, is the primary symbol of their office.
Benedict closed his homily by saying that he wanted to touch upon something and commend it to the prayer of the new cardinals: “Peace among all the disciples of Christ, as a sing of the peace that Jesus came to bring to the world.”
“The church is that portion of humanity in which the lordship of Christ is already evident,” Benedict told the cardinals, “which has peace as its privileged manifestation.”
“Prayer for peace and unity constitutes your first and principal mission,” Benedict told the cardinals, “so that the church may be ‘healthy and compact,’ a “sign and instrument of unity for the entire human race.”
The new cardinals concelebrated the Mass with Benedict, once again held inside St. Peter’s Basilica rather than in the square outside. Although the square can accommodate much larger crowds, Benedict is known to prefer to celebrate inside the basilica whenever possible, regarding it as a superior liturgical space.
Benedict opened his homily by noting that today is the Feast of Christ the King, and that each of the three Scripture readings for the day, in different ways, pivot on the figure of Christ. The pope reminded the cardinals that their ring carries the image of the crucified Christ, as a reminder of the “kind of throne upon which he was exalted” and of the call to “give your life for the church.”
Benedict also said that “announcing to the world the truth of Christ” is the primary obligation of the cardinals, a duty shared with the pope and the entire church.
“The church is the depository of the mystery of Christ,” the pope said. “It is so in all humility and without any shadow of pride or arrogance, because it’s the greatest gift it’s received without any merit on its part, and it’s called to offer that gift freely to humanity in every epoch.”
Benedict insisted that the truth of Christ “is not a philosophy or a gnosis,” even if it includes the loftiest peaks of human thought. It is instead a person, the “logos” of God.
Referring to cardinals as "the senate of the church," Benedict called upon them to form one whole under Christ. That remark was taken by some analysts as an indirect plea for unity among the cardinals, in view of recent debates over matters such as Benedict's motu proprio, meaning a document exercising his legal authority, which broadened permission for celebration of the Latin Mass in use prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Not every cardinal has been unabashedly enthusiastic. Cardinal Diogini Tettamanzi of Milan, for example, has told priests in his diocese that the ruling does not apply to them, since they use the Ambrosian Rite rather than the Roman one. Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels has downplayed the document, saying there's little interest in the old rite in his country.
Such comments led Sri Lankan Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship, to complain that some bishops are "in rebellion against the Pope" and guilty of pride, "one of the gravest sins".
There was an American touch to the music for this morning’s Mass. The organ was played by Monsignor James Edward Goettsche, the longtime organist for St. Peter’s Basilica and a native of Los Angeles, California, and one of the choirs was from an American parish.
In addition, Cardinal Francis Stafford, formerly of Denver and today head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, was one of two cardinal-deacons chosen to stand alongside Benedict XVI as he celebrated the Mass.