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John Paul II alters the rules for electing Popes. What has changed? An in-depth look at how a papal conclave functions
Universi Dominici Gregis
John Paul I and John Paul II, both elected in 1978, were chosen
according to rules laid down in 1975 by Pope Paul VI in his Romano
Pontifici Eligendo. Now John Paul II has modified those rules. The current
Pope's new constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis, promulgated February
22, continues the basic structure established by Paul VI for the next
"conclave," the election process by which his successor will be chosen, but with
some important modifications. The main changes introduced by the new document
are: 1) The cardinals will stay inside the Vatican in modern hotel-like
accommodations, rather than in cramped, makeshift quarters in the Papal Palace;
2) the Pope can be elected only "by scrutiny," that is, by secret written ballot
of the cardinals able to vote; 3) the older cardinals not eligible to vote are
permitted to take part in the preparations for the conclave; and 4) the rules on
secrecy have been toughened and refined.
The College of Cardinals, made up of the Church's highest-ranking prelates, has been empowered to elect Popes since the twelfth century. Today, the current College of Cardinals is a very cosmopolitan group, which is appropriate to the Church's international presence and owes much to efforts by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II to "internationalize" the Holy See and its bureaucracy. Europe still leads with some 83 cardinals, 36 of whom are Italians. Central and South America together have 23 cardinals. North America (meaning the U.S., Canada and Mexico) has 20, of whom 12 are Americans, four Canadians and four Mexicans. Africa has 17 cardinals; Asia has 15; and Oceania has four.
Cardinals not retired fall into two main groups. There are the 40 or so "curial" cardinals, who live in Rome and head the major government offices of the Church. Most of the others are "diocesan" cardinals, who serve as archbishops of major cities around the world, usually in their home country. The Pope names new cardinals every few years. The total number of cardinals may not exceed 180, but the number of those cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope is limited to 120. If the conclave were held today, some 116 cardinals of the current cardinals would be eligible to vote, including 10 Americans: Cardinals Baum and Szoka of the Curia, Mahoney of Los Angeles, Bernardin of Chicago, Law of Boston, O'Connor of New York, Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Keeler of Baltimore, Hickey of Washington, Maida of Detroit.
Throughout the "Interregnum," the Cardinal Chamberlain is responsible for the government of the Church, including the funeral and burial of the old Pope and the election of a new one, acting on behalf of the College of Cardinals. He is assisted by three Cardinal Assistants, selected by lot from among the cardinals already in Rome; they are changed every three days. The heads of all Vatican government organizations are temporarily suspended from exercising their authority, with these exceptions: the Cardinal Chamberlain, the Cardinal Vicar for Rome (now Cardinal Ruini, an Italian), the Major Penitentiary (currently an American, Cardinal William Baum), the Cardinal Arch-priest of St. Peter's, and the Vicar-General for Vatican City State (both of these offices are held by Italian Cardinal Virgilio Noe).
The process of selecting the new pontiff is called a "conclave," from the Latin "to lock with a key," which reflects the emphasis on secrecy in all that occurs from the time the cardinals are informed of the old Pope's death. As they arrive in Rome, and even while the funeral rites are going on, the cardinals begin to meet in "General Congregations," under the leadership of the Cardinal Chamberlain. Each cardinal is given a copy of the election rules, the Cardinal Chamberlain reads key sections of the document to the assembled cardinals, and they each swear an oath to observe those rules and to "maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters relating to the election of the Roman Pontiff."
Role of Older
The cardinals are given ballots, slips of paper on which is written the Latin words, "Eligo in summum pontificem," which means "I elect as Supreme Pontiff." They write in a name, fold the paper, and one by one, ballot held high, file to the altar, where there is a large chalice covered by a plate. Each cardinal places his ballot on the plate and then uses the plate to slide it into the chalice. The Cardinal Chamberlain supervises the counting of the votes. The names are announced as the ballots are opened, so the cardinals can keep track of and know how each vote went. A record is made of the results of each vote, which is given eventually to the new Pope after his election. All other notes and papers used by the cardinals during that session of the voting are burnt with the ballots.
The Cardinal Chamberlain must make sure that the cardinals have no contact with the outside world during the conclave, either directly, in writing, or by electronic means: no radio or television, no telephones, recording machines, copiers, newspapers or periodicals (not even Inside the Vatican!). The Sistine Chapel and adjacent areas, as well as the cardinals' living quarters, will be "swept" and checked periodically to ensure that all comply with these rules. All those involved in the election in any way are strictly forbidden to send or receive messages, and may not talk or communicate in any way to anyone, under pain of excommunication.
Some in Rome regard the single greatest innovation in the new procedure the Pope's decision to permit an election by majority vote after many days of deadlocked balloting (Paragraph 75). Two thirds of the ballots are needed to elect on the first 30 votes, but only a simple majority after that. This has suggested to some observers that a group of cardinals who form a simple majority but could not hope to reach a two-thirds majority might simply wait until the 30 votes had passed to select their candidate.
When the voting begins, few are authorized to assist the cardinals in their work. These include the Secretary of the College of Cardinals, who becomes the secretary for the conclave; the Master of Papal Ceremonies plus two assistants, several priests from the Papal Sacristy to help conduct religious ceremonies; another priest to act as assistant to the Cardinal Dean; a few priests to hear confessions in different languages; and two medical doctors. These officials would have to live in the Santa Marta Hospice along with the cardinals. So would the staff people for housekeeping and preparing and serving meals. All of these would be under oath to maintain absolute secrecy regarding the process.
The cardinals vote once on the afternoon of the first day, after which they vote twice in the morning, and twice in the afternoon. They burn the ballots and others papers used, once after the two morning votes and once after the two afternoon votes. The ballots are mixed with chemicals to make the smoke dark, which lets outside observers know the results. After the first nine votes, the cardinals can decide to devote up to a day for reflection and discussion before resuming the votes. After every additional seven votes, another such pause is possible. After 30 votes, the cardinals can vote to decide to permit a simple majority vote to elect the Pope, rather than the two-thirds majority required up to then.
There is no prescribed limit on how long the voting may continue. In practice, however, it likely will be a matter of days: no conclave since 1831 has lasted more than four days.
The New Pope
When he gives his consent, the elected one immediately becomes Bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. The conclave is now officially over.
Traditionally, the first sign that a new Pope has been elected comes at this point, when white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel, the result of the last ballots being burnt. The cardinals then pledge their obedience to him after which the senior Cardinal Deacon proclaims his election to the world. The Cardinal Deacon intones the Latin words Habemus papam, which means "We have a Pope," and announces his new name from the main balcony of the Vatican. The new Pope then makes his appearance on the balcony to deliver his blessing "Urbi et Orbi," which means "To the City and to the World."
The new Pope is in full juridical control of the Holy See, which is the "central government" of the Catholic Church around the world. No additional formal ceremony is necessary. (The practice of elaborate coronations was discontinued by John Paul I). In all likelihood, the next Pope would complete and celebrate his election, as did John Paul I and John Paul II in 1978, with a public "solemn ceremony of inauguration" of his new papacy, which would include the bestowal of the "pallium," a woolen garment worn around the neck and shoulders, that symbolizes his status and role as Pope.
Finally, soon after, the new Pope would formally "take possession" of his Patriarchal Basilica, which is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome's "cathedral," and celebrate Mass there.