The stately procession of the cardinal electors as they moved from the Pauline Chapel to its greater sister the Sistine is a wonderful example of the power of symbolism. Preceded earlier in the day by a solemn pontifical mass, the ritual underscores the high importance that awaits the College of Cardinals (those under eighty, that is) in the ballot box or rather, urn.
The hype around the contenders, the debates around ethnicity and nationality, the factional struggles around wresting power from the Roman Curia or further consolidating its hold, the speculation around the discrete but hovering presence of the now invisible but ubiquitous Benedict XVI, and the seemingly endless guess work that accompanies any kind of reportage or commentary on Vatican affairs, should not obscure the fundamental issue at hand: restoration.
But what kind of restoration?
The cardinal electors can choose from among their number – they can, in theory, choose widely and boldly from outside the College but that is as improbable as a papal resignation – a prelate who will continue the pastoral and ecclesiological strategies of the recent pontificate: restoration as reclamation.
This reclamation is nothing less than the heroic re-integration into the life of the contemporary church of the certitudes and spiritual and cultural markers of the past. In short, an older and clearly coherent Catholic identity that admits of few concessions to a hostile and utterly secular world. Such an ecclesiological perspective shores up practices drawn from its history that underline its difference from the world; change is anathema; fidelity is to be found in an organic teaching and structure that values continuity above innovation.
But there is another kid of restoration: recovery.
The cardinal electors can opt for a Successor to St. Peter, a Bishop of Rome, whose universal ministry will with daring and a fecund imagination recover the theological insights of Blessed Pope John XXXIII and the bishops, theological experts, and invited guests from outside the Roman communion that he assembled in Rome for the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Such a recovery would entail the dismantling of various ad hoc bodies and commissions put in place to ensure a direction in practice and thinking that ran counter to what most in the church saw as the life of the Spirit. Such a recovery would re-energize a demoralized clergy, frustrated hierarchy, and bewildered and increasingly alienated educated laity.
Restoration as reclamation or restoration as recovery?
Naturally, it is more complicated than any such neat classification or rubric can allow. Of course, theological and liturgical distinctions should be respected, tradition and prophecy prudentially balanced, history honoured and a holy risk engaged.
That is why this conclave, this election,will have an historic importance of great consequence.
Out of it will emerge a leader whose challenge will be daunting: usher in, nurture, a "new Pentecost" or preside over a narrowing of ecclesial understanding that is firm, unassailable and comforting.
Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal Commentator and papal blogger ("Papal Musings"), scholar and biographer.