Papal election and succession

Papal election and succession

Not to be ghoulish, but today I’ve had to review what happens when a pope dies and thought you all might be interested in some more information.

First, the current norms for the process were promulgated in 1996 in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (Ironically it was on February 22, 1996, almost exactly 9 years ago.)

First, when a pope dies, everyone in the Roman curia loses their job, although of course they continue in their position until a new pope is elected. Apart from the most basic functions of the curia, normal business is suspended. Even then, most people will be asked to continue after a new pope is elected.

The day-to-day business of the Vatican will become the responsibility of the Camerlengo, or chamberlain, who right now is Cardinal Eduardo Matinez Somalo, a Spaniard. He becomes the administrative leader, and all the decisions that belong to the Pope alone—such as appointment of bishops, major new documents, canonizations, and so on—are suspended to wait for the new pope. There are other restrictions as well as UDG says: “During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, laws issued by the Roman Pontiffs can in no way be corrected or modified, nor can anything be added or subtracted, nor a dispensation be given even from a part of them, especially with regard to the procedures governing the election of the Supreme Pontiff.”

On a symbolic level, the Swiss Guard will bar the entrance to the apostolic palace with a heavy black chain. The bell of the Arco delle Campani will ring the death knell and bells throughout Rome will join them.

Meanwhile, the Camerlengo’s first duty will be to verify the pope’s death and then contact all of the cardinal-electors. (That would be all the cardinals who are less than 80 years old at the time of the pope’s death.) He would summon them all to Rome for the conclave.

The Pope will be dressed in formal vestments and will lie in state, perhaps in St. Peter’s, perhaps in what is technically his church as Bishop of Rome, St. John Lateran. The Swiss Guard will guard his body through the night. The Office for the Dead will be prayed.

When the body arrives at St. Peter’s, the hearse will enter the square where the Swiss Guard and an Italian honor guard will greet it with a salute. The cardinals then present in Rome will likely accompany the body to the steps of St. Peters and they and rows of priests, both secular and religious, will accompany it inside. They will then hold the solemn liturgy for the reception of the deceased into the basilica.

A novena of Masses (nine days) will be offered at St. Peter’s and the basilicas and churches of Rome. The people will be allowed to view the body lying in state. When Pope Paul VI died, 10,000 people per hour passed the bier of the pope to pay their respects.  Between the fourth and sixth day will be the burial.

Paul VI had requested his funeral to be held outside so that as many people who wish could attend, and I suspect that John Paul has asked for that as well. We should expect that the funeral will be carried on live TV, too.

Paul VI’s funeral was much less elaborate than those of his predecessors, by his own design, and John Paul II has shown himself to be of like mind with Paul VI in matters like these. All of the elaborate pomp and ritual of previous centuries, such as the tapping of the dead pope’s head with a silver hammer three times to ensure that he’s dead, has been abbreviated and slimmed down for modern sensibilities.

Interestingly enough, the pope is buried in not one, but three coffins. The first is made of cypress to signify that popes are human and are buried like common men. The second is lead and carries his name, the dates of his pontificate, and copies of the important documents issued during his reign. The pope’s broken seal is also placed in this coffin by the Camerlengo before it is sealed. The third coffin is made of elm, a highly prized wood in Rome, to signify the great dignity of the pope.

The breaking of the Fisherman’s Ring is an important ceremony because, with the destruction of the seal the power of the papacy is extinguished until the new pope is elected.

(In the ceremony, the Camerlengo, papal household officials, and the commandant of the Swiss Guard, as well as whatever other cardinals wish to participate, enter the papal apartments and inspect the Ring to make sure it is truly the Fisherman’s Ring. The Camerlengo then scratches the face of the ring twice with a silver knife. Everyone else inspects the Ring. It is then placed on a lead block and the Camerlengo strikes it with a silver hammer until it cracks or breaks.)

After the coffins are sealed, only those closest to the Pope, any family members if any are living, and his household, accompany the body to the crypt below St. Peter’s. The vicar for Vatican city, currently Cardinal Edmund Szoka, stays behind to pray the Office of the Dead.

Meanwhile the papal apartments have been sealed, although those who normally live there, such as the pope’s secretary, can remain until after the burial.

After the papal funeral, the focus turns to the conclave.

The Conclave

At this point it seems useful to discuss the makeup of the College of Cardinals. The college has three ranks: cardinal-bishop, cardinal-priest, cardinal-deacon. Cardinal-bishops are both the cardinals to whom the pope assigns the title of a suburbicarian church, that is those dioceses nearest to Rome, and the Eastern-rite patriarchs who are members of the college. The six suburbicarian cardinal-bishops are Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Angelo Sodano, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Giovanni Battista Re, Roger Etchegaray, and Bernardin Gantin. The patriarchs are Stephanos II Ghattas of the Copts, Nasrallah Sfeir of the Maronites, and Ignace Moussa I Daoud, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. The suburbicarian cardinal-bishops are members of the Curia and include the Dean of the college, currently Ratzinger, and the Vice-dean, currently Sodano.

Cardinal-priests and cardinal-deacons are assigned titular churches within the diocese of Rome and they all become symbolically part of the clergy of Rome. Cardinal-priests are ordinaries of their own dioceses, while cardinal-deacons are of the Roman curia or other non-diocesan bishops.

The dean of the college has the authority to ordain to the episcopate the man elected to become pope, if required. The first cardinal-deacon, by order of precedence, has the duty of announcing the name of a new pope. At the moment, that is Cardinal Luigi Poggi. Update: As of February 28, the new senior cardinal-deacon is Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, 78, the retired head of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Cardinal Poggi, at the time of this writing, is 87 years old.

While the Chair of Peter is vacant, there are two congregations of cardinals that take care of business. The Particular Congregation deals with the ordinary affairs of the Holy See, and it consists of the Camerlengo and three cardinals, ones from each order or rank, chosen by lot from among the cardinal-electors presently in Rome (cardinal-electors are any under the age of 80). The three cardinal-assistants change every three days.

For more important questions that arise, the General Congregation, which consists of all the cardinals present in Rome, deals with those. Also, any decision of one Particular Congregation can only be changed by the General Congregation, not by any subsequent Particular Congregation.

At the death of the pope, every cardinal who does not have a legitimate impediment—illness, imprisonment, and so on—must make his way to Rome as soon as possible to take part in the General Congregation.

General Congregations before the conclave are held daily and presided over by the Dean of the college. During this time, the cardinals will be housed in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. They used to be locked in the Sistine Chapel during the conclave, but John Paul changed this in 1996 in Universi Dominici Gregoris. Interestingly, the cardinals will receive two meditations from two bishops or priests on the problems facing the Church and the need for care in selecting a new pope.

The conclave begins no earlier than 15 days after the death of the pope, to allow time for the cardinals to arrive in Rome, but must begin no later than 20 days after. When the cardinal-electors enter the conclave, they take an oath of secrecy not to reveal anything that happens there.

We, the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, of the Order of Bishops, of Priests and of Deacons promise, pledge and swear, as a body and individually, to observe exactly and faithfully all the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, and to maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff or those which, by their very nature during the vacancy of the Apostolic See, call for the same secrecy.

The cardinals are forbidden to communicate by any means with anyone outside of the conclave. They aren’t allowed to read newspapers or magazines or listen to the radio or to watch television. I would assume they would not be allowed to read blogs either, which is too bad because I would have lots of good advice for them.

The rooms in the Domus Sanctae Marthae are spartan, and the cardinals will not be living in luxury. In the old days, the cardinals lived in cells in the Apopstolic Palace and did not see the outside world until the election was over. “Conclave” literally means “with key” and it signifies that they are locked in until they are done. Now that they are staying in the Domus, they will go outside at times, but they will be kept strictly out of the public view.

The only other people allowed inside the areas of the conclave include the secretary of the College of Cardinals, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations with two Masters of Ceremonies and two Religious, and someone chosen by the Cardinal Dean to assist him. There will also be a number of priests to hear confessions in various languages and two medical doctors and a housekeeping staff. They will all be housed in the same space with the cardinals for the duration. They, too, are sworn to secrecy and from recording anything that goes on.

Obviously the two kinds of oath have been broken in the past since we have had stories circulate concerning what goes on in the conclave.

The Sistine Chapel is also prepared by putting down a wooden staging covered by carpet to raise the floor a little and insulate against the cold marble floor. Two rows of desks will be set up facing each other where the cardinals will sit during the deliberations. The chapel will also be swept for any kind of eavesdropping equipment to ensure secrecy.

On the morning of the first day of the election, the cardinal-electors celebrate the Votive Mass Pro Eligendo Papa in St. Peter’s. Wearing their red choir dress, they will gather in the Pauline Chapel and process to the Sistine Chapel, chanting the Veni Creator to invoke the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

The Election

Once inside, they take their oath and the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, currently Bishop James Michael Harvey, an American, will give the order Extra omnes, meaning “All out”. The only ones who stay inside with the cardinals are the Master of Ceremonies and the priest or bishop chosen to preach the second meditation.

The oath is worth looking at too, because it proscribes how the cardinals will act and behave if elected:

We, the Cardinal electors present in this election of the Supreme Pontiff promise, pledge and swear, as individuals and as a group, to observe faithfully and scrupulously the prescriptions contained in the Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, published on 22 February 1996. We likewise promise, pledge and swear that whichever of us by divine disposition is elected Roman Pontiff will commit himself faithfully to carrying out the munus Petrinum of Pastor of the Universal Church and will not fail to affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and the liberty of the Holy See. In a particular way, we promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting; we promise and swear not to break this secret in any way, either during or after the election of the new Pontiff, unless explicit authorization is granted by the same Pontiff; and never to lend support or favour to any interference, opposition or any other form of intervention, whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree or any group of people or individuals might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman Pontiff.

With 120 electors, this will be a lengthy process. After the meditation, the speaker and the MC both leave.

The doors to the chapel used to be sealed from the inside by the MC and from the outside by the Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne, a noble gentleman of Rome, but that is not provided in the current instruction.

This is when they have the sweep for bugs by two technicians supervised by the architect of the conclave, who knows the buildings intimately, and by the time it is done, it is nearly the end of the day.

On the morning of the second day, a Mass invoking the Holy Spirit is celebrated in the Pauline Chapel. From this point on, there will be a morning session and an afternoon session each day until the pope is elected, with two ballots per session, for four per day.

There used to be three methods by which a pope was elected: per acclamationem seu inspirationem, per compromissum and per scrutinium. John Paul II abolished the first two in Universi Dominici Gregis. With per acclamationem seu inspirationem, one or more cardinals stood and proclaimed one of the others to be their choice. If others followed in acclamation, the election results. Admittedly, this was very rare, if it ever happened in modern times.

The second method, per compromissum, was means to break a deadlock in which a delegation of electors is formed by the whole body and entrusted to elect the new pope. The third method, per scrutinium, or scrutiny, in which a secret ballot is taken until a two-thirds majority chooses a single candidate. This is now the only method by which a pope can be elected.

First, the ballots are handed out. On them is written: Eligio in summum pontificem (I elect as Supreme Pontiff). Then from among the cardinals are chosen three Scrutineers, three Infirmarii (who collect the ballots of sick cardinals present), and three Revisers.

The ballots are filled out, and folded in half. The Infirmarii go to collect the votes of the sick.

At this point, the cardinals, in order of precedence, hold up their ballots so that they can be seen and carry them to the altar, at which the Scrutineers stand. The cardinal then pronounces an oath that he is voting for the one he thinks should be elected. He puts it in the receptacle, bows, and returns to his place. After all the ballots are collected, the first Scrutineer shakes the box several times and the last Scrutineer then counts them to be sure they equal the number of electors. If it’s off, even by one, the ballots are burned and they have to start again. If the correct number are there, the three Scrutineers count the ballots. The last Scrutineer, as he reads out the individual ballots pierces each one with a needle through the word Eligo and places it on a thread, so that the ballots can be more securely preserved. After the names have been read out, the ends of the thread are tied in a knot, and the ballots thus joined together are placed in a receptacle or on one side of the table.

After that the votes are counted, checked by the Revisers, and then burned. If a new pope has not been elected, they immediately go into a second ballot, with the same election officials. New officials are chosen each session.

After three days without a result, there is a one-day pause for prayer and discussion and a brief exhortation by the senior cardinal-deacon. If after seven more ballots they still haven’t reached a decision, there is another pause with an exhortation by the senior cardinal-priest. After yet another seven ballots with no election, they pause again with an exhortation by the senior cardinal-bishop.

If after all this they still haven’t decided, they will decide on how to proceed. They could decide to vote based on a simple majority or they could vote only on the two names in the immediately preceding ballot that received the greatest number of votes.

When a valid election has taken place, the junior cardinal-deacon summons the secretary of the College of Cardinals the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations. The cardinal dean then asks the consent of the one elected: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” After he receives consent, he asks him: “By what name do you wish to be called?” The Master of Celebrations and two Masters of Ceremonies certify the acceptance by the new Pope and the name taken by him. At his acceptance, he is Bishop of Rome and the Pope.

The new pope is taken to the Room of Tears behind the Sistine Chapel and vested in papal white with the red mozzetta overlaying it and then a stole. A throne is placed in the chapel where the Particular Congregation had been sitting. One by one, each cardinal-elector makes an act of homage and obedience, and then the senior cardinal-deacon announces to the people that an election has taken place and proclaims his name.

At this point, the people outside and, through the hordes of media, the whole world, has been waiting at least two hours to find out who the new pope is, having seen the white smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney. The senior cardinal-deacon proclaims formally: “I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope! His Most Eminent and Reverend Lord, Lord (baptismal name) … Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church (surname), who has chosen for himself the name of (new papal name).

The new pope appears and gives the traditional Urbi et Orbi (the City and the World) blessing.

Then follows the installation of the new pope.

(Much good information about the protocols and ceremony of the whole process can be found in The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church, by James-Charles Noonan, Jr. I believe it is out of print, however.)

Written by
Domenico Bettinelli