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Electing a New Pope
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


How Does a Conclave Work?
Are There Candidates for Pope?
Who Is In Charge Until a New Pope Is Elected?
What Do Cardinals Over 80 Do During a Conclave?
Where Do Conclave Participants Live?

Q: I know that the cardinals come together after a pope dies to elect a new pope. Who determines the procedures to be followed? How soon does it begin? Where does it occur? Why is this meeting called a “conclave”? How long has the Catholic Church used this process?

A: On February 22, 1996, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic constitution “Shepherd of the Lord’s Whole Flock” (Universi Dominici Gregis), which established the procedures for the next conclave.

Each pope is free to revise conclave rules. If a pope dies without doing so, then the rules followed for the previous conclave are used at the next one.

In 1996, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed Pope Paul VI’s 1970 decision that only the cardinals younger than 80 when the vacancy begins may vote for the new pope, and that 120 is the maximum number of electors.

As of April 1, 2005, there were 117 cardinals below the age of 80, and 66 above that age.

Since 1179, papal elections have re-quired a two-thirds vote of the cardinals. If 26 ballots have not resulted in the election of a new pope, John Paul II has now decreed that a simple majority (50 percent plus one) is sufficient.

Between 15 and 20 days after the pope’s death or resignation, the conclave begins. After a morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, the cardinals go to the Sistine Chapel that afternoon. One ballot may be taken on the first day. Two morning ballots and two more in the afternoon occur on the following days.

Once the conclave begins, cardinal electors may not contact or be contacted in writing, by phone or electronically by anyone outside the conclave.

The word “conclave” comes from the Latin cum clave (with a key). This system was established by Pope Gregory X in 1274. He was elected two years and nine months after Pope Clement IV died. Locking the cardinals in a meeting and gradually decreasing their food rations seemed a good way to encourage them to agree on a new pope.

The system has been modified over the centuries; food is no longer rationed. Cardinal electors are not locked in; a voter who arrives after the conclave begins can now be admitted.


Are There Candidates for Pope?

Q: With up to 120 cardinal electors, how do they get to know one another before voting for pope? Is there a formal process for selecting candidates?

A: In his 1996 apostolic constitution, John Paul II wrote: “With the same insistence shown by my predecessors, I earnestly exhort the cardinal electors not to allow themselves to be guided, in choosing the pope, by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favor or personal relationships toward anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear, or the pursuit of popularity.

“Rather, having before their eyes solely the glory of God and the good of the Church, and having prayed for divine assistance, they shall give their vote to the person, even outside the College of Cardinals, who in their judgment is most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way” (#83).

The pope later wrote, “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” (#86).

There are no “candidates” in the sense of someone who asks cardinals to vote for him.

Many cardinals know one another because of previous work (especially true of cardinals who head offices of the Holy See) and because of special meetings of the whole College of Cardinals (seven between 1979 and 2003), meetings of the worldwide Synod of Bishops (every three to four years), meetings of the Holy See’s various offices (several cardinals are on the board of directors of each office), and also because of travels.

Each cardinal will assess the importance of a candidate’s pastoral and administrative experience, linguistic ability, age, health and other factors.

Support from a highly respected cardinal may influence other cardinals; it is often said that Cardinal Franz König of Vienna was very influential in the election of Karol Wojtyla in 1978.

The papacy is an awesome responsibility before God and the church.

Q: Between the death or resignation of a pope and the election of a new one, somebody or some group of people must be in charge of making various arrangements. How is this determined? What authority does this person or group have?

A: A cardinal camerlengo (chamberlain), appointed by the pope, has specified duties regarding the pope’s funeral. He, the cardinal secretary of state and the cardinal president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City supervise conclave preparations.

Pre-conclave meetings of all cardinals are called “general congregations” and are presided over by the dean of the College of Cardinals. These meetings can, by a simple majority, resolve more important matters pertaining to the conclave. Other business is entrusted to the camerlengo, who works with three cardinals, chosen by lot.

Except for the camerlengo, the vicar general for the Diocese of Rome and four other Vatican officials who continue to hold office, the heads of the Holy See’s offices continue with only the business that does not require the pope’s specific approval. Members of the papal diplomatic corps and of the Holy See’s offices continue their work.

Q: I know that cardinals over 80 can no longer vote in a conclave. Does that mean that they make no contribution to the process of electing a new pope? If they don’t live in Rome, do they go there before the conclave?

A: In the 1996 apostolic constitution governing the next conclave, John Paul II confirmed Paul VI’s 1970 rule that cardinals over 80 do not vote for a new pope. In the Introduction to this document, Pope John Paul II explained: “The reason for this provision is the desire not to add to the weight of such venerable age the further burden of responsibility for choosing the one who will have to lead Christ’s flock in ways adapted to the needs of the times.

“This does not, however, mean that the cardinals over 80 years of age cannot take part in the preparatory meetings of the conclave [see previous question], in conformity with the norms set forth below.

“During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, and especially during the election of the Supreme Pontiff, they in particular should lead the People of God assembled in the patriarchal basilicas of Rome and in other churches in the dioceses throughout the world, supporting the work of the electors with fervent prayers and supplications to the Holy Spirit and imploring for them the light needed to make their choice before God alone and with concern only for the ‘salvation of souls, which in the Church must always be the supreme law’ [Canon 1752 of the Code of Canon Law].”

If a pope dies, most cardinals, regardless of age, will come to Rome for that funeral.

Cardinals over 80 are welcome to attend the general congregations de-scribed above. Before the conclave begins, they have several days to talk with cardinal electors.

Q: In past conclaves, the cardinals lived very close to the Sistine Chapel, where the voting occurs. Will that be the case for the next conclave? When was the last time a conclave was held outside Rome?

A: The Domus Sanctae Marthae, built in the 1990s, is the residence where each cardinal elector will have a bedroom, study and bathroom. This building is located in Vatican City, close to the Paul VI Audience Hall. In 20th-century conclaves, cardinals lived in improvised quarters in the Apostolic Palace. Now the cardinals will be bused each day the short distance from the Domus Sanctae Marthae to the Sistine Chapel.

The last conclave held outside Rome was in Venice (1800). Pope Pius VI, who died while imprisoned by Napoleon Bonaparte in Valence, France, had made emergency provisions for the election of his successor. After 14 weeks, the cardinals chose Luigi Chiaramonte, who became Pius VII.

The shortest 20th-century conclave lasted one day (1939); it elected Pius XII. The longest one lasted five days (1903); it elected St. Pius X.

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