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Explainer: How is a new Pope chosen?

There are currently 209 members of the College of Cardinals – but only 115 of them get a vote in choosing the new pontiff.

White smoke emerges from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, indicating a successful outcome to the Papal Conclave of 2005.
White smoke emerges from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, indicating a successful outcome to the Papal Conclave of 2005.
Image: AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito

As 115 cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel for the beginning of the conclave to elect a new Pope today, TheJournal.ie examines the process which will lead to white smoke emerging in St Peter’s Square. This article was originally published on 11 February.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the resignation Pope Benedict XVI throws new focus on the peculiar mechanics by which a new pope is elected.

For only the ninth time in a century, the world’s cardinals will assemble in Rome for a secretive event – which could potentially take weeks – to decide on the new supreme ruler of the Roman Catholic Church.

Though it’s considered a monarchy by most political theorists – and, in fact, one of only six absolute monarchies, where the head of state holds total executive, law-making and judicial power – the papacy is a slightly more unusual one, in that it is elected.

The electorate, however, is limited: the power to choose a new Pope falls not even merely to the world’s cardinals (who number 209 at present), but those under the age of 80.

This means that, presently, there are only 115 voting members of the College of Cardinals.

Under the Sistine ceiling

The Sistine Chapel at the Apostolic Palace in Rome is probably best known these days for having had its ceiling painted by Michaelangelo – but it also has a special place in the role of the Catholic Church.

It is there – literally, under lock and key – where the College of Cardinals meet to choose a new pope. The members lodge in a purpose-built hotel adjoining St Peter’s Basilica, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, but the voting actually takes place in the Sistine Chapel.

The reason members are kept under lock and key is to avoid any interference from the outside the world: in the 13th century, political interference after the death of Pope Clement IV led to the decision to hold future elections cum clave (literally meaning ‘under key’).

During the conclave, as it has now become known, any outside media feeds to the Domus Sanctae Marthae is are disconnected and the members remain locked in with only each other for company.

Usually the timetable for the Conclave is relatively formulaic (though only because they usually follow the death of the incumbent). The outgoing Pope is usually buried between four and six days after their death, offering enough time for pilgrims to pay their respects before a new member is chosen. In the meantime, the cardinals will have begun to arrive in Rome to arrange and attend the funeral.

The conclave then usually begins to sit on the fifteenth day after the death, though this can be extended for a few more days to allow the arrival of latecoming cardinals. It is thought that a similar pattern will be observed next time, with the date of Benedict XVI’s resignation (February 28) as the date from which the others derive.

As they meet in Rome, the cardinals – including those who are not of voting age, but who can still attend the discussions – are formally addressed on two occasions: once in the days preceding the conclave, and once in the Sistine Chapel just before the doors are sealed.

The custom is that neither of the two people who address the cardinals are themselves eligible for election – ordinarily they are high-ranking civil servants within the Vatican, or cardinals who are retired and therefore ineligible for election.

In occasions where the outgoing Pope has died, there are often unofficial extra lectures – including the homily at the Pope’s funeral, and at a Mass held for the cardinals on the day before the conclave. In 2005, both were addressed by Joseph Ratzinger – who ended up becoming Pope anyway. Though his sermon at the pre-conclave Mass was described as a ‘pitch for the papacy’, it is generally considered that Ratzinger was not personally lobbying for the office.

With the final sermon given, the doors are locked – with the call, “Extra, omnes!”, demanding the evacuation of everyone unconnected to the conclave – and aren’t opened until the famous white smoke is seen.

Ballot, then ballot, then ballot again

The general formula of the conclave is that there are two elections every morning of the conclave, and two each afternoon. A successful candidate needs a two-thirds majority of the votes cast.

On the off-chance that there is a single stand-out candidate to take the papacy, a vote is held on the first afternoon of the conclave. If there is nobody elected, the members stop and begin to deliberate about the identity of the next members with the next vote held the following morning.

A candidate, by the way, does not necessarily have to be a cardinal themselves – in theory, any male who is not considered a persona non grata by the Holy See can be chosen – though it is exceptionally rate for someone outside of the ranks of the cardinals to be chosen.

Pope Benedict XVI’s election, marking the end of the Papal Conclave of 2005, is covered by British newspapers on Wednesday, April 20, 2005. (Martin Cleaver/AP)

Each member casts their vote anonymously, formally placing their ballot paper in a box at the chapel altar when called to do so. As they cast their vote, each cardinal takes an oath declaring their faith that the person named on their ballot paper should become the next supreme pontiff. It is not permissible to abstain.

After each vote, three officials (chosen at random as the conclave begins) verify the number of ballot papers cast, and ensure that the number of papers equals the total electorate. (If it doesn’t, they burn the papers without counting them.) Once verified, they then count the votes to determine if anyone has won.

Votes are taken in pairs: a first ballot, if unsuccessful, is immediately followed by a second, without any time in between for members to confer or deliberate in any way. If the second ballot is unsuccessful, the papers from both ballots are burned with the addition of special chemicals to ensure the smoke is black.

To avoid an infinitely long conclave, the process is suspended after three days – and then after each further seven ballots – so that members can be addressed by named senior officials. After 30 unsuccessful ballots, a day’s respite is called, after which only the two most-supported members stand in final run-off elections until one has won the two-thirds support needed.

Habemus papam!

Should a ballot result in a successful election, the ballot papers are again burned – but with the addition of chemicals causing white smoke, therefore indicating to the public outside that a new Pope has been found.

The formal appointment is made by the Dean of the College of Cardinals (assuming that the Dean himself is not the winning candidate, in which case the duty is performed by the Sub-Dean. This was the case in 2005.) The Dean summons two other senior officials to witness the ‘appointment’.

On the off-chance that the winning candidate is not already a bishop, they must first be ordained as a bishop – or, if circumstances need, as a priest or deacon in the first place. A layman nominated to be pope would therefore be ordained first as a deacon, then a priest, and then a bishop. Each of these ordinations is carried out by the Dean of the college.

Once this is done, the nominee is formally asked, in Latin:

Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?

The nominee presumably answers in the affirmative (anyone unwilling to accept the job will probably have made their objections clear before then) and takes office from that very second – there is no oath to take, and the nominee becomes the new Pope from the moment they indicate their willingness to take the job.

The new Pope is asked what papal name they want to take, and while a script proclaiming their election is written, they go into a small robing room where they get dressed in their new pontifical outfit and enjoy a brief moment of solitude and reflection.

When they have dressed, a senior cardinal leads the delegation to the main balcony of St Peter’s Basilica and gives the famous address, in Latin, including the words ‘Habemus papam!’ (‘We have a Pope!’) They announce the nominated cardinal, and the name they have taken on – and the new Pope emerges, delivering their first pontifical address.

In older times the conclave was followed in later days by an official coronation, where the new Pope was crowned (physically) with an elaborate crown known as the ‘triple tiara’.

However, since the austere inauguration of John Paul I in 1978, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI have opted for a formal coronation. In any case, the event is not necessary – the Pope takes office, and assumes the power, from the moment they indicate their willingness to do so.

Absent in body, but not in legacy

Benedict himself will not take part in the conclave – his election to the papacy meant he lost his previous title as a cardinal, though even if he didn’t, he’d now be over the age of 80 to participate – but he will have dramatically shaped its outcome nonetheless.

As of today, Benedict has chosen 37 members of the College of Cardinals – a reasonable number given he has spent less than eight years in powers – including 28 who fall under the voting age of 80.

Though it’s not known for sure whether the plans will go ahead, in light of today’s news, this is due to be increased later this month: next week, Benedict was due to ‘cap’ another 22 new cardinals, including 18 who are under the age of 80.

This will bring the electorate to 136, a third of whom will have been chosen by Benedict himself – prompting the automatic disqualification of some older members, as the electorate is limited to 120.

The outgoing pontiff will therefore have a major imprint in the outcome of the election, whether he is present or not.

Read: Pope Benedict resigns, citing ‘advanced age’ and deteriorating health

More: Pope’s brother: Pontiff was ‘considering resignation for months’

Reaction: Taoiseach extends ‘best wishes’ to Pope, President writes Pontiff a letter

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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