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Conclave 101, by Patrick Hornbeck

Papal Conclave 101

By Patrick Hornbeck, Ph.D.

J. Patrick Hornbeck II, Ph.D.
The 117 cardinals are meeting in Rome in the conclave that will choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, the first pope since 1294 to resign voluntarily. 

Why is it called a conclave? The word comes from the Latin phrase cum clave, meaning “with a key.” The cardinal electors will be sequestered in Vatican City to ensure their privacy and avoid any attempts to influence them from the outside. In earlier times, the cardinals were literally locked behind closed doors; today, they are forbidden to speak with outsiders, to consult news sources, and to use audio or video equipment.

Why the secrecy? In the Middle Ages, Roman noblemen, emperors, and factions within the church often sought to place their favorite candidates on the papal throne. Today, many Catholics believe that the privacy of the conclave gives cardinals a better opportunity to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Cardinal electors are required to swear an oath to observe absolute and perpetual secrecy related to the ballots.

Who makes the rules?
A series of popes have issued documents concerning the procedures of the conclave and the governance of the church during the period called in Latin sede vacante (literally, the empty seat). Almost all of the rules currently in effect were devised by Pope John Paul II in 1996. In 2007, the present pope, Benedict XVI, changed the procedure in a small but possibly crucial way, requiring that for a candidate to be elected, he must receive the votes of two-thirds of the cardinal electors. This week, Benedict made another set of changes, including allowing the cardinals to begin the conclave sooner than the normal fifteen days after the death (or resignation) of the pope.

What happens in the conclave?
After a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, the cardinals will go in procession to the Sistine Chapel and take their oaths of secrecy. They will have chosen a non-cardinal to preach a sermon about the needs of the church, but after the sermon, the only ones left in the chapel will be the cardinals themselves. Then the balloting begins. Once on the first day, and four times on each subsequent day, each cardinal will write the name of his choice for pope on a specially prepared ballot. For each vote, the cardinals will publicly cast their ballots in order of precedence, each swearing in Latin that “my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” The votes of any ill cardinals will be collected from their infirmary rooms. The votes will then publicly be opened and counted. If any candidate receives two-thirds or more of the votes, then he is elected; if not, there is another round of balloting.

What about white smoke and black smoke? By tradition, after each round of voting (called a “scrutiny”) the ballots and all papers used during the election are burned. A chemical is added that produces black smoke if no one was elected, white smoke if there is a new pope. Television cameras from all over the world will be trained on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel throughout the conclave.

When does the new pope become pope? Like Queen Elizabeth II, who became monarch at the moment of her father’s death even though she was on safari in Kenya, a cardinal elected pope immediately assumes the full authority of his office upon telling the cardinals that he accepts his election. A formal, public installation Mass will follow several days after the conclave, but the pope becomes pope in the Sistine Chapel. It is also there that the pope formally takes his new name, a practice that became standard in the tenth century. Look for the new pope to choose the name of a saint or a predecessor—but not Peter, believed to be the first bishop of Rome, out of respect for his position as the chief of Christ’s apostles.

When will the pope meet the world? Traditionally, the pope makes his first public appearance on the Vatican balcony within an hour of his election. But first the new pope is outfitted in the set of white robes that distinguish his office (there are sets of different sized robes on hand to accommodate different sized possible popes), and the cardinals formally pledge their support and obedience to him. The small room off the Sistine Chapel where the pope changes into his new vestments is informally known as the “Room of Tears,” because more than one newly elected pontiff has broken down, sobbing, upon learning of his election. One wonders if they were tears of joy, fear, or sorrow.

Patrick Hornbeck is assistant professor and associate chair in the Department of theology at Fordham University.

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