What the Cardinal Electors Look For in A Potential Pope: Holiness

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Edward Egan was unequivocal in his response to what qualities the next pope should possess. (This story went to press the day the conclave began.)

“The No. 1 characteristic,” said Cardinal Egan, “is that he be a man of deep holiness — that’s essential.”

Indeed, this factor is so crucial that if you were to ask almost any cardinal in the days leading up to the conclave about the main criteria in choosing a pope, that would be his answer. But what exactly is holiness, and what does it mean in terms of the papacy?

A person who is holy means that he is “whole,” a complete person spiritually, mentally and physically. Holiness is a state of being in very close communion with God and one to which every Christian is called: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (5:48), and the Church teaches that holiness is attainable through a life of deep prayer, reception of the Sacraments — in particular the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist — and submitting one’s entire life to the will of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined holiness in two ways: “separation” and “firmness” — separation because it involves the single-minded contemplation of God rather than inferior things; firmness because it requires an attachment to that which is man’s ultimate end and primary principle, namely God himself.

But when it comes to the papacy, why is the holiness of “the Holy Father” or “His Holiness” so important? The main reasons are that he is the vicar of Christ on earth, the supreme pontiff, the highest representative of Jesus on earth. To fulfill that role he must be close to God, even like God, who alone is holy in the full sense of the term.

However, because a pope is called to a special holiness does not mean that he must neglect the temporal.

A pope, like any Christian, has to find the right mixture of living in the material and the transcendent dimension of human existence and this is attainable through surrender to God’s will — a principle component of holiness.

Indeed, any eligible cardinal for the papal office would not, if they were truly holy, seek to become the successor of St. Peter by their own force of will.

“If a man were to desire to be Pope, he’d be power-hungry or out of his mind,” said Father Robert Gahl, professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “None of the cardinals want to be pope, especially right now,” he added, stressing the awesome task of following the very high standard set by John Paul II.

Indeed, there are fewer better examples of papal holiness than that of John Paul II. His last book, Memory and Identity, recounts John Paul’s return to consciousness three days after surgery following the assassination attempt upon his life in 1981.

“Did I say night prayer?” his secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz remembers John Paul asking. It was a comment that for many was a profound example of his holiness.

Father Gahl added that every Pope “enjoys particular inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that’s the cause of his infallibility.” And without the “Great Comforter’s” grace, he cannot fulfill his three-fold role of sanctifying, governing and teaching.

“The Holy Spirit has to act through him,” agreed Father Stephen Brock, also a philosophy professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “Holiness is being one with the Holy Spirit, maintaining the teachings of Jesus Christ in doctrine, in governance, in keeping unity, in continually going forward and in carrying out the role of sanctifying the rest of the Church — he must be holy in order to communicate all this to others.”

But there is also one other vital characteristic that is the hallmark of a holy person: humility. “This was definitely a cause of John Paul II’s charism — he was so humble especially with young people and they responded to that,” said Father Gahl. “He was genuine.”

Edward Pentin writes

 from Rome.