Election of a new Pope

Many questions have been asked about how the Cardinals go about electing a new Pope and what happens afterwards. Here are answers to some of these questions from my columns in the Catholic Weekly.

What happens in a conclave?

Now that Pope Benedict has resigned and the cardinals will elect a new Pope, I have always been intrigued by exactly what happens in a conclave and how it works. Can you enlighten me?

As I mentioned in my last column, the document that determines what happens when the Apostolic See becomes vacant and a new Pope is to be elected is the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, issued by Pope John Paul II on 22 February 1996.

By the way, the word conclave, meaning literally “with key”, refers to the gathering of the Cardinal electors in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, where they are so to speak “locked away.”

Which Cardinals may vote for a new Pope? The Constitution determines that only those beneath the age of eighty when the See becomes vacant may vote, and there should be no more than 120 of these. At present there are fewer than 120 eligible to vote.

The voting itself is held in the Sistine Chapel, which is presided over by Michelangelo’s well-known fresco of the Last Judgment. It is a sombre reminder that the Cardinals will one day be held to account for all their actions, in this case for their choice of a shepherd for the universal Church.

Whereas in earlier conclaves the Cardinals resided in the area of the Sistine Chapel itself throughout the days of the conclave, they now live in the more comfortable Domus Sanctae Marthae, or House of St Martha, built in 1996 on the edge of Vatican City. All other guests must leave during the conclave so that the Cardinal electors have complete privacy. Even the shutters on the windows are locked for this purpose and the Cardinals have no contact with the outside world.

Like the Cardinals themselves, the cooking and cleaning staff of the house and the others who assist the Cardinals take an oath of silence, promising “absolute and perpetual secrecy” regarding anything related to the election. They also “promise and swear to refrain from using any audio or video equipment capable of recording anything which takes place during the period of the election within Vatican City” (n. 48).

The Cardinals are taken back and forth to the Sistine Chapel by bus during the conclave, although some Cardinals in the last conclave preferred to walk, scrutinised by Vatican security staff.

On the morning the conclave begins, the Cardinal electors take part in a solemn Mass for the election of the Pope in St Peter’s Basilica. That afternoon they chant the Veni Creator, a hymn to the Holy Spirit, in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace and then process to the Sistine Chapel, which has been checked beforehand to ensure that no audiovisual equipment has been secretly installed to record or transmit the proceedings. There they take the oath to observe all the prescriptions of the Apostolic Constitution  Universi dominici Gregis, including that of perpetual secrecy regarding the election, and they attend a meditation preached by an ecclesiastic.

That afternoon, one ballot may be held. On the following days there are two ballots in the morning and two in the afternoon until someone is elected by a two-thirds majority. Before depositing their written ballots in the box placed on the altar each Cardinal says aloud, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected” (n. 66).  After the ballots have been counted and recorded they are burned.

If after three days no one has been elected, there is a pause for prayer and informal discussion for no more than one day, and then the voting resumes for another seven ballots, when there is another pause, and so on successively until someone is elected (cf. n. 75). If no one is elected after four such series of ballots, in subsequent ballots the Cardinals vote on only the two names who received the largest number of votes in the previous ballot until one of them has a two thirds majority, as Pope Benedict XVI determined in a Motu proprio in 2007. At this point they send white smoke up the chimney to announce to the world that a new Pope has been elected.

The newly elected Pope is then asked whether he accepts the election and by what name he wishes to be called. The other Cardinals come up and make an act of homage and obedience to him, and together they make an act of thanksgiving. After this the new Pope goes to the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, where the senior Cardinal Deacon announces to the people that the election has taken place and he proclaims the name of the new Pope, who gives the Apostolic Blessing.

Until then, “the universal Church, spiritually united with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, should persevere with one heart in prayer” (n. 84) for the Cardinals who are to elect the Pope and for the new Pope himself.

More on the election of a Pope

I have been talking with friends about the election of the new Pope and we have some questions. Who decides when the Conclave will begin? Can the elected person refuse to accept? And at what moment does he become Pope: with the election or with his inauguration?

 Many people have been asking questions like yours, so it is good to be able to answer them in this column. The answers, by the way, are based on Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, issued in 1996 and amended in some matters by Pope Benedict XVI.

When the Apostolic See becomes vacant by either the death or the resignation of the Pope, the government of the Church, including the election of the new Pope, is entrusted to the College of Cardinals (n. 2). The more important matters are dealt with in what are called General Congregations, which all the Cardinals who are not legitimately impeded must attend. Cardinals over the age of eighty who cannot vote in the election may attend these Congregations but they are not required to do so (n. 7). The General Congregation is to meet every day until the Conclave begins (n. 11).

Matters of lesser importance are handled by a Particular Congregation, consisting of only four Cardinals (n. 8).

Pope John Paul II determined that the Conclave is not to begin before fifteen days after the See becomes vacant, to allow all the Cardinals to be present. But in any case the Conclave must begin by the twentieth day (n. 37). On 25 February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI issued an Apostolic Letter Normas nonnullas allowing an election to begin before fifteen days have elapsed, provided all the Cardinal electors are present. It is understood that any Cardinals eligible to take part in the election who have indicated, for a good reason, that they will not be attending do not need to be present. It is up to the General Congregation to decide on which day the election will begin.

Can the person elected Pope decline the election? Given the enormous burden of responsibility before God and the Church that being Pope entails, it would be perfectly understandable if the person elected were reluctant to assume the office. It is known that some of the Popes have felt this reluctance, among them Pope Benedict XVI. But at the same time the person elected would have enough supernatural outlook to acknowledge that his election is an expression of the will of God, and for this reason he would normally accept the election.

In this regard Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution reads: “I also ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office” (n. 86).

Naturally, this does not bind the one elected to accept the office. He can still refuse, but it would be most unlikely for him to do so.

And as regards when the person elected becomes Pope, the answer is immediately. Pope John Paul II declared: “After his acceptance, the person elected, if he has already received episcopal ordination, is immediately Bishop of the Church of Rome, true Pope and Head of the College of Bishops. He thus acquires and can exercise full and supreme power over the universal Church” (n. 88). His inauguration will take place some days later but from the moment he accepts the election he already has all the powers of the Pope and he can exercise those powers.

What is more, within an appropriate time after his inauguration the Pope is to take possession of the Patriarchal Archbasilica of the Lateran” (cf. n. 92). The Lateran Basilica, consecrated in 324 AD, is the Pope’s cathedral church as Bishop of Rome.

Finally, when the Apostolic See is vacant the prayer for the Pope in Mass is not said, but the whole Church “spiritually united with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, should persevere with one heart in prayer; thus the election of the new Pope will not be something unconnected with the People of God and concerning the College of electors alone, but will be in a certain sense an act of the whole Church” (n. 84).