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Election to be an elaborate occasion

Mon., April 4, 2005

VATICAN CITY – The procedure to be followed between the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of his successor evolved over many centuries. It was revised most recently by John Paul himself in the 1996 apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis” (The Shepherd of the Lord’s Whole Flock).

Most of the major players are cardinals and archbishops from around the world who currently hold Vatican positions, most of whom were appointed by this pope.

Death and funeral

At the death of a pope, the prefect of the papal household, a post presently held by American Archbishop James M. Harvey, informs the camerlengo, or chamberlain, Spanish Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo.

The camerlengo then verifies the death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, and the vice camerlengo, Bishop Ettore Cunial.

The custom of striking the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer to confirm his death lasted into the 20th century but is no longer followed. No autopsy is performed.

The camerlengo informs the vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, that the pope is dead, and Ruini, in turn, tells the people of Rome. The camerlengo breaks the pope’s Fisherman’s ring and seal and locks and seals the pope’s private apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

The interregnum

Pending the election of a new pope, all but three of the cardinals and archbishops who head the congregations, councils, commissions and other bodies making up the Roman Curia, the central administrative bodies of the church, leave office. Their secretaries attend to day-to-day affairs, and decisions are provisional until confirmed by a new pope.

The exceptions are: the camerlengo, who takes charge of property and money matters; the vicar of Rome, who continues to provide for the pastoral needs of Romans; and the major penitentiary, American Cardinal Francis Stafford, the official who grants absolutions and dispensations. The camerlengo is assisted by three cardinals under the age of 80, who are chosen by lot every three days.

The conclave opens

The conclave should open 15 days after the death of a pope but can be postponed to 20 days if circumstances warrant. All cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the new pope. Pope Paul VI limited the number of cardinal-electors to 120, but John Paul II has exceeded that number in his appointments; currently, 117 are eligible.

The conclave opens in the morning with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the afternoon, the cardinals, vested in scarlet robes, walk in procession in order of seniority from the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel to the chant of the ninth century Latin hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus.”

The master of pontifical liturgical celebrations then orders all those not taking part or assisting in the conclave to leave, using the Latin phrase “Extra omnes” (All out). Assisted by the undersecretary of state, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, he closes off the cardinals’ hotel and Sistine Chapel.


Each day of balloting starts with the selection of three scrutineers who count the votes, three infirmarians who collect the ballots of any cardinals too ill to go to the chapel, and three revisers who review the ballot count. They are chosen by lot with the cardinal-deacon lowest in seniority, Attilio Nicora, president of the administration of the Apostolic See, drawing the lots.

Each cardinal, disguising his handwriting, enters the name of his choice on a two-inch wide rectangular card on which is printed at the top the Latin phrase “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” (I elect as Supreme Pontiff). He folds the ballot lengthwise to conceal the name.

Counting the ballots

Once all the cardinals have voted, the first scrutineer mixes the ballots by shaking the receptacle. The third scrutineer counts the still-folded ballots. If the number of ballots is not the same as the number of electors the ballots are burned, and the cardinals immediately vote again.

If the number of ballots is correct, the scrutineers begin the count seated at a table in front of the altar. The first scrutineer unfolds each ballot, silently notes the name written on it and hands it to the second scrutineer, who does the same and hands it on to the third, who reads the name aloud and records it. The cardinals may also keep a tally.

At the end of the count, the scrutineers announce the total number of votes each candidate has received. Any candidate who has received two-thirds of the votes of those present is elected pope.

After the results are announced the third scrutineer threads the ballots together with a needle, which he inserts through the word “eligo.” He ties a knot at each end and turns the bundle of ballots and the scrutineers’ records over to the three revisers to be checked.

If all is in order the scrutineers, secretary of the conclave and masters of ceremonies, who have been readmitted to the chapel by the junior cardinal-deacon, burn the ballots and all notes taken by the scrutineers and cardinals in a special stove. Since 1903, the masters of ceremonies have added chemicals to color the smoke. If the tens of thousands of people waiting in St. Peter’s Square see white smoke they know that a pope has been elected; if black smoke, one has not.

The new pope

Once the election is decided, the cardinal dean asks the winner, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” It has been many centuries since the answer was no; St. Philip Benizi, for one, fled a conclave in 1271 and hid until another candidate was chosen. St. Charles Borromeo declined in the 16th century and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine declined in 1621. When the candidate says “yes” he is ordained a bishop by the cardinal dean if not already a bishop and immediately takes office.

The new pope is asked by what name he wants to be called. For the past 1,000 years, it has been the custom for the pope to change his name upon being elected. The last to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in 1555.

The cardinals make an act of homage and obedience to the new pope and join in a prayer of thanksgiving.

The senior cardinal-deacon then steps out onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square. He pronounces a Latin formula including the phrase, “Habemus papam (We have a pope)” and announces the name the new pontiff has taken. The pope appears and gives his first “urbi et orbi” blessing to the city of Rome and the world.


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