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The Coming Conclave: What to expect from the next
World Report Staff
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
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
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 Popes 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 Popes 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
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 camerlengoat the
moment, Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, the prefect of the Congregation
for Religious Lifeis required to ascertain the Popes death
in the presence of ecclesiastical witnesses. Tradition requires him to
call out the Popes 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 Popes death, the camerlengo then tackles
a series of important practical tasks. First he is required to destroy
the papal ringthe famous Fishermans ringin a time-honored
ceremony that was established to prevent imposters from counterfeiting
the papal seal on official documents. He announces the Popes 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 Pontiffs 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 worlds 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 Popeare 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 cardinalsthe handful of cooks, doctors, and technicians
allowed into the conclave to care for the prelates needsare
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 electionsand
will no doubt circulate once again when the next conclave beginsshould
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
We do know that the conclave begins after a Mass in St. Peters 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 collectedtogether 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 Cardinalscurrently Joseph Ratzingerthen 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
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