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The Coming Conclave: What to expect from the next papal election

By Catholic World Report Staff

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Note: This article was originally published in November 2003. While some of it is dated, we are republishing it here because it is a very helpful guide to the coming conclave of cardinals and the selection of the next pope.

On October 16, 1978, a charismatic Polish prelate named Karol Wojtyla was introduced to the world as Pope John Paul II, the 264th successor of St. Peter. Most of the people living in the world today had not yet been born.

Having passed the 25th anniversary of his papal election, Pope John Paul has now outlived many of the prelates who have been touted as his potential successors, and even many of the journalists who have speculated about his demise. For years the Italian media have buzzed with rumors that the Pope’s death is imminent, and for years John Paul II has confounded those predictions.

Nevertheless, this historic papacy must come to an end someday. Over the past year, the Pope’s frequent public displays of frailty have reminded the Catholic world that, despite his remarkable stamina, the end will inevitably come soon. When the Holy Father does die, what can the world expect?

An established pattern

Although the world has seen enormous changes since "the year of the three Popes," the process by which a new Roman Pontiff is selected will be familiar to anyone who can remember past conclaves. In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul altered only the details of an established pattern.

For the purposes of the Holy See, the death of a Pope is certified not by a medical doctor, but by the camerlengo ("chamberlain"), the prelate who will be responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Vatican during the interregnum. The camerlengo–at the moment, Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, the prefect of the Congregation for Religious Life–is required to ascertain the Pope’s death in the presence of ecclesiastical witnesses. Tradition requires him to call out the Pope’s name three times. When the Pope does not respond, the camerlengo announces, "The Pope is dead." At that point, the apostolic see is officially vacant.

Immediately, the heads of most offices within the Roman Curia lose their authority. While bishops remain as the heads of their dioceses, the prelates who work in the Vatican dicasteries serve at the will of the Pontiff, and draw their authority from him. So all of the cardinals who work as prefects of Vatican congregations and presidents of pontifical councils lose their mandate when the Pope dies. The day-to-day functions of those offices are supervised by the secretaries of those congregations and councils, who ordinarily rank as bishops, but not cardinals. In practice, however, all of the most important work of the Vatican comes to a stop; decisions are postponed until the new Pope takes office.

The one cardinal at the Vatican who retains clear duties is the camerlengo, who will be the focal point of activity until the beginning of the conclave. Having declared the Pope’s death, the camerlengo then tackles a series of important practical tasks. First he is required to destroy the papal ring–the famous Fisherman’s ring–in a time-honored ceremony that was established to prevent imposters from counterfeiting the papal seal on official documents. He announces the Pope’s death to the dean of the College of Cardinals, who in turn makes the formal announcement to the world (although in practice the media will have spread the news across the globe before that formal announcement). Then, having made provisions for the removal of the deceased Pontiff’s personal effects, he seals off the papal apartment in the apostolic palace. Finally, he contacts all the members of the College of Cardinals, summoning them to the conclave.

As cardinals from abroad arrive in Rome, they join the cardinals already in residence in a daily meeting known as the "general congregation." All of the world’s cardinals, including those who are over the age of 80 and thus ineligible to participate in a conclave, join in the work of the general congregation. This body, working by simple majority vote, directs the affairs of the Catholic Church during the interregnum. Once again, virtually all major policy decisions are postponed; the general congregation devotes its attention primarily to the practical details of planning the funeral for the deceased Pope, and making arrangements for the conclave.

Universi Dominici Gregis
stipulates that the conclave should begin between 15 and 20 days after the death of the Pontiff. Unless some cardinals have unexpected difficulty reaching Rome, the next conclave will probably start promptly on the 15th day.

Shrouded in secrecy

The events leading up to a conclave –particularly the funeral for the deceased Pope–are conducted in the full glare of the media spotlight. But the conclave itself is shrouded in secrecy. The cardinals will conduct the papal election behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel. The first order of business, as dictated by tradition and reinforced by Universi Dominici Gregis, is for each cardinal to swear a solemn oath that he will never divulge the proceedings of the conclave, unless he is explicitly freed from this oath by the Pope who is elected. Even the few outsiders who assist the cardinals–the handful of cooks, doctors, and technicians allowed into the conclave to care for the prelates’ needs–are sworn to "absolute and perpetual secrecy" about whatever they might see or hear. The ecclesiastical penalties for violating these oaths are severe, including possible excommunication.

Because of this absolute rule of secrecy, the Catholic world knows very little about what happens inside a conclave. The purported "inside" reports that have been circulated about past papal elections–and will no doubt circulate once again when the next conclave begins–should be treated with extreme skepticism. Obviously they have come either from someone who was not a participant, and is engaged in pure speculation; or someone who has already shown himself untrustworthy, by violating his solemn oath.

We do know that the conclave begins after a Mass in St. Peter’s basilica, concelebrated by all the cardinals. After Mass, the cardinal-electors form a procession, and enter the Sistine Chapel. There, each prelate takes his oath to abide by the rules of the papal election, which bar politicking and require each cardinal to base his vote solely on what he believes is best for the Catholic Church. Then the assembled cardinals hear an exhortation from a priest who is chosen by the general congregation, on the basis of his "sound doctrine, wisdom, and moral authority," who encourages them to the task at hand. Then the doors are sealed, and the cardinals are left by themselves until the new Pope is selected.

The actual voting is a complicated process, heavily laden with Roman tradition. Each cardinal writes the name of a candidate on a prepared slip of paper, folds it, and drops it into a large chalice at the front of the Sistine Chapel. These ballots are then meticulously counted by a panel of three cardinals who have been chosen by the conclave for that task. If the vote is inconclusive, the ballots are collected–together with all notes the individual cardinals have been keeping –and burned together with some dark dye to produce the black smoke that tells outsiders the conclave has not finished its work.

Under the rules of the conclave, there is only one such ballot on the first day. On each following day, there are two ballots in the morning and two in the afternoon, until one candidate receives the required two-thirds majority. In Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul directed that after three days, if the voting has not produced a new Pope, the balloting should be interrupted for a morning of prayer and reflection, with one cardinal leading the others in a meditation on their responsibilities. If the deadlock continued for another three days, there would be another pause, and the process would be repeated. Finally, if twelve days passed without the election of a new Pontiff, the conclave could decide matters by a simple majority vote.

These changes in the rules, which had previously been absolute in requiring a two-thirds majority, were clearly designed by John Paul II to guard against the possibility of a stalled conclave. But actually, since the start of the 20th century, no papal election has taken longer than five days. Pope Paul VI was elected on the third day of the conclave; John Paul I, the second day; John Paul II, the third day.

So it is logical to expect that within a few days after the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel, one cardinal will be chosen. (Theoretically, the conclave could select a man who is not a cardinal; in practice, that has not happened since the election of Urban VI in 1378.) The dean of the College of Cardinals–currently Joseph Ratzinger–then approaches the winning candidate to ask whether he will accept the papal office. If he replies affirmatively, the conclave is over. White smoke appears above the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter has a new successor.

Since the words "I accept" bring the conclave to an end, and the rules of secrecy are lifted, we have an accurate account of the reactions from the last two men elected to the papacy. An emotional Pope John Paul I said to the cardinals who elected him, "May God forgive you for what you have done!" A more composed John Paul II said that he accepted "with obedience in faith to Christ my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, in spite of great difficulties."

Read Part 2 of "The Coming Conclave


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