The Coming Conclave: What to expect from the next
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 a vivid reminder of the risks attendant on speculating
about papal conclaves, see the accompanying sidebar, which is reproduced
from the January 2001 issue of CWR.) 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."
Why so secret?
The first conclave, in which the cardinals were locked into a room (the
word "conclave" derives from the Latin words for "with
a key") occurred in 1241, when Italian noblemen grew impatient with
the cardinals who had been deliberating for more than two months. Later
in that same century, another papal election lasted a record three years,
prompting frustrated Catholic laymen to remove the roof of the cardinals
residence, and eventually cut off their food supply, to prod them toward
In more recent years, the main purpose of the conclave, and the secrecy
that goes with it, has been to preserve the cardinals, and thus the Church,
from outside pressures. Since their deliberations are secret, the cardinals
cannot be rewarded or punished by any outside agency; they can vote as
their consciences dictate, without fearing the consequences. In the oath
with which they begin their proceedings, the cardinal-electors swear that
they will neither offer nor accept any inducements in exchange for votes.
They are forbidden to put any conditions on their votes, such as a requirement
that the new Pope must enact a certain policy or appoint a particular
official. Universi Dominici Gregis even specifies that if any such
conditions are imposed, despite the prohibition, they must be considered
null and void after the election. The new rules also prohibit any cardinal
from acting as an agent for a secular government, and explicitly reject
the claim of certain governments to exercise veto power over papal candidatesa
claim invoked by an Austrian emperor as late as 1903.
Once they enter the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals can only consult with
each other. Aside from the few cooks who prepare their meals, and doctors
ready to attend to any prelates who are ill, they are cut off from contact
with the outside world. No mail, newspapers, or other reading material
can enter the Chapel, or the Casa St. Martha where the cardinals sleep
at night. Radios and televisions are disconnected. The area is carefully
swept before the conclave, to ensure that there are no electronic eavesdropping
devices. The cardinals isolation is as complete as scrupulous organizers
Once the conclave begins, therefore, the thousands of reporters who are
expected to gather in Rome for the papal election will be virtually powerless
to find new stories. The worlds most powerful news syndicates will
be reduced to doing what ordinary Catholics have done for generations:
standing in St. Peters Square, waiting to see white smoke.
However, if reporters are inclined toward guessing what the conclave might
be doing (and the Vatican-watchers of the Italian press are notorious
in that regard), they will have plenty of material for their discussions.
From the moment of the Popes death until the doors close on the
Sistine Chapel, every statement by an influential cardinal or other Vatican
official will be carefully dissected. Even after the conclave begins,
those cardinals who are over the age of 80, and thus ineligible to participate,
may be willing to tell journalists about earlier meetings with their colleagues,
lending their own perspectives on the events that could be developing
behind the closed doors.
Ambitious reporters will pay especially careful attention to the eulogy
delivered at the funeral Mass for the deceased Pope. The terms in which
the late Pontiff is praised might point toward the qualities that the
homilist would like to see displayed in the next Pope. Virtually every
cardinal, as he arrives in Rome, will be questioned by the media about
his vision for the future of the papacy. The results of those interviews
will appear in print and on the airwaves, andat least until the
conclave beginsthe other cardinals will see them. Cardinals will
also visit each other socially in the days before the conclave, and although
their discussions theoretically should not focus on the papal election,
inevitably they will talk about the challenges that face the Church. By
the time they actually enter the conclave, the cardinal-electors will
have developed a clear sense of what they can expect. The best reporters
in Rome will also have refined their own lists of the likely papabili,
or candidates for the papacy.
Of the many changes that have occurred since 1978, the one most likely
to affect the process of the next papal election is the explosive growth
in communications technology. Thousands of journalists will be in Rome,
buttonholing prelates and asking for their insights. Enterprising reporters
might even stake out Romes more popular restaurants, taking note
of the cardinals choice of dining companions. Working with Internet
connections and satellite links, reporters will be able to question one
cardinal, consult with an expert analyst about his answer, and get a reaction
from another cardinal, all in the space of a few hours. The speed of the
"news cycle," exponentially faster today than it was in 1978,
will allow the collection of millions of bits of information over a period
of 15 days or more. Whether journalists can assemble all those pieces
of information into a single meaningful mosaic is another question, naturally.
The ubiquitous presence of the mass media will also prompt various special-interest
groups to visit Rome, hoping to influence the cardinals decisionor
at least to gain their bit of news coverage. We can safely assume that
representatives from groups like We Are Church, the Womens Ordination
Conference, Voice of the Faithful, Dignity, and even Catholics for a Free
Choice will circulate around the Vatican, looking for cameras. Their presence
will be a reminder of the reason why, when the formal deliberations begin,
the cardinals will be sequestered inside the Sistine Chapel.
Another important new development will be the need for tighter security.
In his book Conclave, John Allen reports that 7,000 security officials
were on duty in Rome for the funeral of Pope Paul VI. That event was before
September 11, 2001before the Western world became acutely conscious
that terrorists can strike at any moment. When John Paul II dies, and
world leaders assemble at the Vatican for his funeral, a small army of
security experts will be required. Officials at the Vatican are understandably
reluctant to discuss the details of security arrangements, but St. Peters
Square is now routinely cleared and searched by bomb-sniffing dogs, and
guests are asked to pass through metal detectors, before any important
public celebration. The papal funeral will doubtless call for more stringent
methods: snipers on the roof of the apostolic palace, helicopters circling
the Vatican grounds, and more.
A third important change since the conclaves of 1978 is the opening of
the Casa St. Martha, a guesthouse inside the Vatican grounds where the
cardinals will be lodged during the conclave. The facilities are not luxurious
(and many "princes of the Church" have grown accustomed to luxury),
but they are an enormous improvement over the old arrangement, in which
cardinals were assigned cots, set up in rows of tiny cubicles, along the
corridors of the apostolic palace. The 1978 conclave that elected Pope
John Paul I took place during a sweltering August heat wave, and the cardinals
had neither air-conditioning nor adequate water supplies. Perhaps it is
no surprise that the cardinals finished their work in less than two days.
As they begin their discussions about the qualities that are required
in a new Pontiff, the cardinals must ask themselves whether they are looking
for someone who will boldly confront the challenges facing the Church,
or a "caretaker" who will carefully steer the Church through
a period of transition. A preference for the bold approach would suggest
a younger, physically robust candidate; the choice for a transition Pontiff
could be an older man. But any cardinal who thinks that he is voting for
a "caretaker" should be mindful of the perception that Pope
John XXIII would be likely to preside over a quiet pontificate; instead,
he summoned the Second Vatican Council, inaugurating the most turbulent
period in Catholic history since the Reformation.
The next question might be whether the new Pope should be "Roman"
or not that is, whether he must have close connections with the
Roman Curia. In the past 170 years, only one Pope was serving on the Curia
immediately before his electionand that one, Pius XII, was elected
under extraordinary circumstances, with Europe marching into World War
II and the cardinals looking for a prelate with a certain grasp of Vatican
diplomacy. On the other hand, both Popes John XXIII and Paul VI had long
careers in Vatican diplomacy before being named Archbishops of Venice
and Milan, respectively, and elected from those sees to the papacy.
Background briefings on the election of a Pope often cite traditional
Roman adages, some of them demonstrably untrue. There is, for example,
the saying that when a conclave begins, "he who goes in a Pope, comes
out a cardinal" meaning that front-running candidates are rarely
elected. Actually both Popes Pius XII and Paul VI appeared at the top
of most lists of papabili before the conclaves at which they were
elected. John XXIII also figured prominently on those lists, as (to a
lesser extent) did John Paul I. Of the past five Popes, therefore, the
only one who could really be counted as a surprise is John Paul II. And
even his election might not have caught observers so thoroughly off guard
if they had not assumed that the 455-year Italian monopoly on the papacy
A more useful principle is encapsulated in the saying that "a fat
Pope follows a thin Pope." With the notable exception of Blessed
John XXIII, no recent Pontiff has been at all stocky; but the adage is
not meant to be taken literally. The point is that in choosing a Pope,
the cardinal-electors often look for personal qualities that were missing
in the most recent Pontiff.
This explains why reporters pay such careful attention to the eulogy preached
at a Popes funeral, and to the remarks made by other prelates in
reaction to the Holy Fathers death. In their praise for the deceased
Pontiff, the cardinals are taking the measure of the man: the fine qualities
that he had and, perhaps by inference, those he lacked. Their statements
may provide the first sketch of the character the cardinal-electors will
be seeking in the new Pope.
The measure of the man
Looking back across the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, eulogists will
be able to point to spectacular accomplishments; they may only hint at
particular weaknesses. Pope John Paul has had an enormous impact on the
history of our era; he has been one of the most widely beloved Popes in
history, and unquestionably the most visible. He played a pivotal role
in the collapse of the Soviet empire. His list of writings is prodigious:
14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions,
42 apostolic letters, and 3 full books. He has made 102 foreign trips,
and held over 1,000 public audiences, attended by more than 17 million
The quality of this Popes teaching is as remarkable as its quantity.
Historian James Hitchcock remarks: "He is by far the most important thinker ever to occupy the papal throne:
a theologian and philosopher who would be important even if he were not
Pope. The quantity of his output is daunting and will require a century
for the Church to digest fully."
Yet in spite of his remarkable energy and intellectual vigor, Pope John
Paul has not been successful in stemming a general decline in the practice
of the Catholic faith. The enormous personal popularity that he has demonstrated
during his apostolic voyages has not translated into higher rates of attendance
at Mass in those countries after his departure; the charisma that has
riveted millions of teenagers attending World Youth Day ceremonies has
not led to a surge in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
In his own personal statements on controversial public issues, the Pope
has been staunch in his support of Catholic tradition; yet in his appointment
of bishops, he has frequently chosen clerics who are quite ready to make
their peace with prevailing liberal trends.
After 25 years, the pontificate of John Paul II remains an enigma. It
is a popular misconception that he has been a deeply conservative, authoritarian
Pope. While his public pronouncements have certainly been conservative
from the perspective of the secular world, his governance of the Church
has been remarkably liberal. The mass media have failed to recognize his
laissez-faire governing style, however, primarily because liberals
within the Church keep insisting that he has repressed them.
He isagain, contrary to a popular mythan unflinching champion
of the reforms proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council, in which he played
a large and enthusiastic role. He appears to be particularly determined
to practice the collegial style of Church governance presaged in the Lumen
Gentium, the Councils Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. He
has gone to great lengths to avoid any perception that the Holy See is
"interfering" in the work of a diocesan bishop.
In the rare cases when the Vatican has intervened to chasten a wayward
bishop, the discipline has been handled by other officials of the Roman
Curia, not by the Pope himself. In the case of Bishop Jacques Gaillot,
who was removed from the Diocese of Evreux, France, after making a series
of heterodox pronouncements, the Vatican explained that the bishop was
guilty of failure to cooperate with his colleagues in the French bishops
conference. Today there are clear disagreements among members of the Roman
Curia. Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper have disagreed about the ecumenical
import of the Vatican statement Dominus Jesus; the papal master
of ceremonies has contradicted the prefect of the Congregation for Divine
Worship regarding the propriety of liturgical dance. Such public disputes
would be unthinkable during the reign of an authoritarian Pope.
As they prepare for the coming conclave, some cardinals will praise John
Paul II for his energy, but hint that it may be time for a more "open"
approach to Church governance. Others will offer exactly the opposite
message, saying that the Church needs to "consolidate," and
adopt a more disciplined approach. Some prelates will extol the Popes
support for social justice, and speak wistfully about "pastoral"
solutions to contentious issues such as contraception and homosexuality;
others will applaud John Pauls stalwart opposition to "the
culture of death," and question whether the Church can cooperate
with leftist political movements. In all these statements, the cardinal-electors
will be dropping hints about the sort of man they hope to elect as John
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