Pope John Paul II issued a new rule book on Friday for how future popes will be elected, largely reaffirming existing guidelines but reinforcing the secrecy of the process and improving accommodations for the 100 or so cardinals who will come to Rome to choose his successors.
At a news conference on Friday, Bishop Jorge Mejia, secretary of the College of Cardinals, said the revised rules had been issued in part to take into account modern technological developments. More sophisticated listening devices, he said, mean the Vatican’s walls “are no longer insurmountable.” He said the new text bans all forms of communications between the secluded cardinals and the outside world.
In answer to reporters’ questions, he said the timing of the new rules had nothing to do with the health of the 75-year-old Pope.
“I can see the pope is in perfect health,” Mejia said. “This document has nothing to do with that particular personal situation.”
In past conclaves, cardinals were jammed into makeshift quarters scattered around the Apostolic Palace, where they were kept as virtual prisoners until the balloting for the new pope - conducted under the Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine Chapel - was over, and white smoke could be seen rising from a chimney above St. Peter’s Square.
In the future, the balloting will still take place in the Sistine Chapel, under the strict rules of secrecy, with the same two-thirds majority of no more than 120 cardinals required for election.
One innovation will be in the comings and goings of the cardinals themselves, who have accommodations at the newly built St. Martha’s Residence several hundred yards from St. Peter’s Basilica.
The last election of a pope took place in October 1978, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Cracow, Poland, became the first non-Italian in more than 500 years to be chosen as St. Peter’s successor. But it was the election of Pope John Paul I a month and a half before - in August, at the height of a hot Roman summer - that Vatican observers say brought home the inadequacies of the cardinals’ cramped accommodations.
The new residence, shown on Italian television, has none of the magnificence of the Vatican itself - where the cardinals ate and slept next to the masterpieces of the Vatican’s art collection. If anything, the new rooms - including 107 two-room suites and 20 single rooms - have the paneled look of a modern motel, except for the crucifixes and portraits of the pope hanging on the walls.
In a change in voting procedures, the revised rules - entitled “Universi Deominici Gregis,” or the The Shepherd of the Lord’s Whole Flock - allow only written secret ballots, abolishing two rarely used and outdated methods. One allowed for the election of a pope by “acclamation,” and the other allowed cardinals in the case of a deadlock to delegate their votes to small committees drawn from their own ranks.