When I was discerning, one of the documents I came across was a post-synodal exhortation (try saying that three times fast!) called "Pastores Dabo Vobis" which translates to "I will give you shepherds" and is a reference to Jeremiah 3:15. The hopefulness of that quote is that God will never leave us without a shepherd to wander through the desert without end. A shepherd is someone charged with the loving care of his flock. Jesus used the image of the shepherd to tell beautiful parables about His abiding care for each individual child of God. Before He ascended to Heaven there to remain until His second coming, He gave us Pastors, or Shepherds to continue to guide His fledgling Church through the desert of this world. How grateful I am that God hasn't left it all up to me to find my way to Heaven, but has given me earthly guides to inspired and lead me along the little way of Christ.
As Catholics, our Shepherds are the priests, Bishops and most of all the Pope. The Pope, through constant prayer, consultation with scholars and Bishops, and the study of the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition, guides us as our chief earthly Shepherd and works to preserve the rich depths of our faith as it has been handed down. He is charged with praying for all of us, but also to remind us always to hold strong to our faith. Our most recent Pope, Benedict XVI, used his papacy as an opportunity to guide us like a good Shepherd, point us always to Christ. One of his greatest contributions to Christian thought was his series called Jesus of Nazareth. He never pointed to himself, except to point out his own frailty, and used all his strength to point always us to Christ who redeems us. John Paul II used his papacy as well to point us to the love of Christ, reminding us always "Do not be afraid!" as we sought to come into closer relationship with Jesus. These men, so seemingly against the culture and irrelevant according to modern media, have been doing the only thing necessary to win our love: Fearlessly preaching the Gospel, with authenticity and truth. Neither of these two great men bent under the weight of increasing societal pressure to modify, tweak, or change the essential doctrine whose sole purpose is to keep us in right relationship with God and draw us up into relationship with Jesus. Both of them saw that the whims of culture change like shifting sand racked by a windstorm of popular opinion. The Church of Christ was built on a rock, not on the sand.
So as we live through this time where we have no earthly shepherd, we turn to God in patience and anxiety to see who will be our new earthly shepherd, our new Peter. When John Paul II passed away, it felt so easy and smooth as then Cardinal Ratzinger took the tiller on the barque and guided us all through the early days of Sede vacante. When they announced "Habemus Papam!" and his kind face came out to wave in disbelief at his flock, I felt reassured. The Holy Spirit was with us, taking care of us, giving us a shepherd after God's own heart. Right now, there are many good men who could take up the tiller and steady the boat, but no one man stands out to me the clear choice. I'm sure the Cardinals are lying in bed right now pondering the same question, but with a greater weight than I. Our new Pope is more than likely among them. Is he lying in his bed with the fear and doubt of Peter, but also the faith to say that he will take up the duty of feeding Christ's flock when he faces the Cross of the papacy soon to be presented to him? As all Catholics cling together on our boat, rocked by the wild storms on all sides, I'm sure even the man who will be our Peter is wondering if the Lord is asleep in the boat. But truly the Lord is not asleep. In these days He lets us steer the boat, but entrusts us with a man to take the tiller and keep our course between the rocks steady and secure, following the route the Lord charted for us nearly 2000 years ago. I trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Cardinals to see and elect the man God has chosen, a man who will turn from his own desires and his fear, to take up the staff and get to the work of strengthening and feeding Christ's weary flock. God will give us a new shepherd, a shepherd after His own heart.