The Conclave Process

popebenedictThis has been an interesting few days to be a Catholic.  Along with Mardi Gras (party!) and Ash Wednesday (fasting and prayer) we also learned that Pope Benedict is resigning the papacy at the end of February.  The more accurate term is “abdication” since the papacy is a position somewhat akin to kingship.  This hasn’t happened since 1415, so it’s a rather novel process with lots of things yet to be determined.  Over the centuries, all but a handful of Popes have left the office by death.  We remember the 2005 passing of Pope John Paul II—his illness, the crowds gathering in St. Peter’s Square to hold prayer vigils as he slipped away from us, and the announcement of his death from advanced Parkinson’s disease.  When a Pope dies (or in Benedict’s case, abdicates) there begins to unfold a complicated process to elect his successor.  The Code of Canon Law (which is like the Constitution of the Church) details everything involved and who in the Church is responsible for each part of the election.
The Cardinals of the Church come to Rome from all over the world and meet in a conference called a “conclave” which is held in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.  Conclave means “with a key” and refers to the face that the Cardinals are locked into the chapel for the voting process.  They used to be locked in night and day until a new Pope emerged.  The longer the voting took, the less food and water was sent in for them.  In one lengthy conclave, the roof of the building they were using at the time was removed to let the Cardinals bake a little under the hot Italian sun.  That sped up their voting, I’m sure.  Today, it’s a little more comfortable.  In the evenings, the Cardinals are lodged in a special dormitory called St. Martha’s House where they’re fed and housed so long as the conclave lasts.  Still, the process is built around electing a new Pope in a timely manner.  The Cardinals will vote up to four times each day by secret ballot.  Before the voting begins each elector takes an oath to faithfully observe the voting process, to maintain absolute secrecy and to disregard any influence on his vote outside his own heart and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  He promises that if he is the one elected, he’ll defend and protect the office of the Pope.  Once the oaths are taken everyone who isn’t voting is ordered out of the Chapel and the door is closed and locked.  The conclave begins.  The room is also swept for any electronic devices and no one is allowed a cell phone.  Many Cardinals use Twitter and Facebook these days, but not during the conclave. 
In order to be elected, a man must receive a 2/3 majority of the ballots cast.  The ballots used are simple note cards folded over once, with the words “I elect as Supreme Pontiff_______” printed on them in Latin.  The cards are collected and counted and if no one receives the needed number of votes, the ballots are burned in a special oven.  Dark smoke emerging from the smokestack tells the watching world that no result has come about yet.  White smoke indicates that the election has produced a new Pope.  Since 1963, chemicals have been added to insure the smoke is white but that doesn’t always work.  So since 2005, bells are rung as well to cut down on any confusion. Inside the Chapel, the Cardinal Dean (who oversees the conclave) asks the Pope-elect if he accepts the results of the election.  He can say “no” if he wishes.  If he accepts and is already a Bishop (as all current Cardinals are) he immediately takes office.  If he isn’t already a Bishop he must first be consecrated one.  The office is, after all, the Bishop of Rome. In the chance that a lay man is elected to the papacy (and this is possible) he must first be ordained a deacon, then a priest, and then consecrated as Bishop.  So the Pope can be any baptized male in theory and is not just limited to the pool of Cardinal electors. The next thing that happens is the choosing of a papal name.  Pope John Paul II was named Karol.  Pope Benedict XVI was named Joseph.  Each pope is free to choose a name that holds meaning for him and his pontificate.  Later, the new pope will go alone into a small red room adjacent to the Sistine Chapel called “the room of tears.”  Here he dresses himself in the new white vestments (which are made in advance and are available in three sizes to fit whomever is elected) and prepares to be introduced to the world in his new role.  No wonder the room is known for the tears shed there in joy, responsibility, hope, and probably no small amount of fear and humility as well.  Then he’s led to the main balcony of St. Peter’s facade where we all get our first look at the new Holy Father.  “Habemus Papam!”  We have a Pope!
As we journey through Lent, please join me and the entire Catholic Church in praying for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.  His decision to step down has opened the door the election of his successor and we pray for his long life and happy, peaceful retirement.  We pray for all the Cardinals of the Church who will soon gather in Rome to prayerfully choose our new Pope.  And lastly, we pray for the man, known now only by God, who will become the 265th successor to St. Peter, the fisherman.  May he lead us in holiness and faithfulness to the Lord.
“And so I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
                                                                     —Matthew 16:18


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