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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
("The Whole Flock of the Lord")

Popes 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 new constitution was announced by the Secretary of the College of Cardinals, Archbishop Jorge Mejia, at the Holy See Press Office February 23, who said that its theme was "the vacancy of the Holy See and the election of the Roman Pontiff." Mejia carefully denied that the Pope's physical condition had any effect on his decision to regulate how the next conclave will work; noted that many modern Popes had tinkered with the electoral process; and emphasized that John Paul II's new legislation on this subject modified the forms rather than the substance of the election process.

Popes and Cardinals
The Pope is an absolute monarch, elected for life by the College of Cardinals. There is no provision in canon law for the removal of a Pope in case of illness or infirmity, although he is permitted to resign (which has not happened since Celestine V stepped down in 1297).

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.

The "Interregnum"
When the Pope dies, the Cardinal Chamberlain (a position currently held by Spanish Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo), must verify the death, authorize a death certificate and make the "event" "public" by notifying the Cardinal Vicar for Rome (Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini). Most people would learn of the Pope's death at this point through broadcasts of Radio Vatican. The Cardinal would then seal the Pope's private apartments. He would also arrange for the "ring of the fisherman" and the papal seal to be broken. Finally, he would arrange for the papal funeral rites, which must continue for nine consecutive days.

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 Cardinals
During the General Congregations, the cardinals can discuss the rules and their implications, other matters relating to the governance of the Church, and receive details on room assignments and living arrangements during the election. It is very likely that the General Congregations would afford the cardinals the opportunity to discuss informally the merits and chances of various candidates, as well as to determine their own voting strategy. Pope John Paul II's new rules encourage those cardinals more than 80-years old, who are disqualified from voting, to participate actively in the General Congregations, by praying for the success of the enterprise about to begin and presumably also by offering counsel and advice to the younger cardinals with voting rights.

Improved Living Accommodations
Pope John Paul has changed the rules for living arrangements for the Cardinals during the conclave. In the past, the cardinal electors were housed in makeshift and uncomfortable accommodations in the Papal Palace adjacent to the Sistine Chapel, where the actual voting takes place. The Pope has decided that from now on the cardinals will be housed in a new facility, the so-called "Santa Marta Hospice," inside the Vatican, about 350 yards from the Sistine Chapel. The Hospice has 107 two-story suites with bath and 20 single rooms with bath, and represents a major improvement in health and comfort from past practice. The cardinals will have two possible methods of getting to the Chapel from Santa Marta: on foot, passing through the Sacristy and Basilica of St. Peter's and from there by elevator to the Chapel; or by bus directly to the Chapel.

Who Is Eligible?
According to canon law, the cardinals can elect any baptized Roman Catholic male, with the proviso that the Pope must also be, or become, a priest and a bishop, if he is not one already. (In theory even baptism is not required, provided the man elected is willing to be baptized, ordained a priest, and then consecrated Bishop of Rome.) In practice however, only members of the College of Cardinals are seriously considered by their colleagues, and there are no cardinals under 80 who are not already bishops. In all likelihood, therefore, the next Pope will be chosen from among the assembled cardinals.

The First Vote
Those cardinals who are eligible to vote must begin to do so no sooner than 15 days, but no later than 20 days, after the death of the Pope. The conclave formally begins with a morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, after which the cardinals proceed to the Sistine Chapel, where they take another oath to follow the new election rules, to defend the rights of the Holy See if elected, and especially "to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical and lay, secrecy regarding everything that relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of election." Then they take seats at tables around the walls and begin to vote.

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.

Tougher Secrecy Rules
John Paul II's increased emphasis on secrecy is a response to the fact that under his new rules the cardinals will be for the first time "exposed" as they make the 350-yard trip from living quarters to the Sistine Chapel, several times a day. Also, the new rules seek to counter the possible use of "modern technology," like the cellular telephones and sophisticated recording devices.

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.

Election "By Scrutiny" Only
Under the new rules, the Pope can be elected only "by scrutiny," that is, by secret written vote of those cardinals under 80 years old. The Pope discontinued two other alternative methods, "by acclamation" and "by commission," neither of which had been used since the late 1300s. (The controversial election of Urban VI "by acclamation" in 1378 provoked the election of the "Anti-Pope" Clement VII, resulting in the Great Schism (1378-1417), when first two and then, for a short time, three men claimed Peter's throne.

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 someone receives the majority need to elect, he is then asked formally by the Dean of the College of Cardinals if he accepts election and what name he wants to assume as Pope. (The practice of choosing a new name has been a papal tradition since the tenth century).

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.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved