How is the Pope Elected?
The procedure for electing the Pope has evolved over the history of the Church. In the early centuries, the clergy and people of Rome elected the successor, who usually had worked very closely with the previous Pope. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II further regulated the process of electing the Pope, making the Cardinals the papal electors. In more recent times, all of the Popes since Pope St. Pius X (except Pope John Paul I) have refined the election process, in particular Pope Paul VI in the apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo (1975) and Pope John II in the apostolic constitution Romano Dominici Gregis (RDG) (1996). However, as Pope John Paul II stated, “I have been careful in formulating the new discipline not to depart in substance from the wise and venerable tradition already established.”
The Cardinals are entrusted with the responsibility of electing the Successor of St. Peter (Code of Canon Law, #349). They first of all represent the universal Church since they come from every inhabited continent. Secondly, each Cardinal is linked to the Diocese of Rome either as the titular head of a Church in Rome with the title of Cardinal Deacon or Cardinal Priest; or as one of the six titular bishops of the suburban sees of Rome or as one of the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, each with the title Cardinal Bishop.
Presently, the number of Cardinal electors is 120. As Pope John Paul II expressed, “In the present historical circumstances, the universality of the Church is sufficiently expressed by the college of 120 electors, made up of Cardinals coming from all parts of the world and from very different cultures.” However, those Cardinals who celebrate their 80th birthday the day before the Apostolic See becomes vacant (due to the death or resignation of the reigning Pope) do not participate in the election of the new Pope (RDG, #33). (At this writing, 118 Cardinals are eligible to vote for the next Pope.)
Given this background, when the Pope dies, there is a nine day period of mourning, during which time the prescribed funeral rites are performed. Unless there are special reasons, the deceased Pope is to be buried between the fourth and sixth day after death. At least fifteen days after the death of the Pope and not more than twenty, the Cardinals assemble at the Vatican. (RDG, #37, 41) They reside at St. Martha’s House, a guest facility within Vatican City, close to St. Peter’s Basilica. (In recent times, the Cardinals resided in very Spartan, makeshift sleeping quarters around the Sistine Chapel.)
The deliberations and voting take place in the Sistine Chapel. Pope John Paul II decreed “…that the election will continue to take place in the Sistine Chapel, where everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in whose sight each person will one day be judged” (RDG, Intro.). (Remember that Michelangelo’s soul-penetrating Last Judgment adorns the back wall of the Sistine Chapel.)
The conclave must operate without any outside interference. Only authorized individuals are allowed access to St. Martha’s House and the Sistine Chapel. No one is allowed to approach the Cardinal electors as they travel between St. Martha’s House and the Sistine Chapel (RDG, #43). All unauthorized people are forbidden to communicate in any way with the Cardinals (RDG, #45).
Also, the strictest secrecy must prevail during the conclave. Pope John Paul II asserted, “I further confirm by my apostolic authority the duty of maintaining the strictest secrecy with regard to everything that directly or indirectly concerns the election process itself” (RDG, Intro.). Therefore, the Cardinal electors individually take a solemn oath to observe the regulations promulgated in Universi Dominici Gregis and to maintain secrecy during and after the election “regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election” (RDG, #53). The Cardinals are forbidden “to communicate– whether by writing, by telephone, or by any other means of communication– with persons outside the area where the election is taking place”(RDG, #44, 53). Moreover, they are forbidden during the conclave to read newspapers or periodicals, to listen to the radio, or to watch television (RDG, #57). Any violation of secrecy will result in “grave penalties,” including excommunication, as judged by the reigning Pope (RDG, #55).
Moreover, prior to the election, “careful and stringent checks must be made with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability in order to ensure that no audiovisual equipment has been secretly installed in these areas for recording and transmission to the outside” (RDG, #51). “All technical instruments of any kind for the recording, reproducing, or transmitting of sound, visual images, or writing” are forbidden (RDG, #61).
There are good reasons for all of these regulations, especially in our age of intrusive media and paparazzi. The great historical example that inspired many of these regulations concerns the conclave of 1268. When Pope Clement IV died that year, the Cardinals met at the papal palace at Viterbo, Italy. Due to political pressures, they could not decide on a Pope for three years! Eventually, they were “locked-up,” with “marshals of the conclave” appointed to prevent them from leaving. (The word conclave derives from the Latin “with key.”) However, they still could not decide on a Pope. The people became so frustrated they tore off the roof, leaving the locked-up Cardinals exposed to the weather. The Cardinals were only given bread and water to eat. Finally, on September 1, 1271, they chose a successor, Pope Gregory X. Hence forward, the meeting of the Cardinals to elect a Pope became known as a “conclave.”
Because of this prolonged conclave, the Second Council of Lyons (1274) decreed that for future conclaves, the Cardinal electors would be “locked-up” to eliminate any outside forces from influencing the election. Although later rescinded, the Council also mandated that if a Pope was not elected after three days, then the Cardinals would only have one meal at noon and one at night; and if a Pope was not elected after five days, they would receive only bread, water, and wine. Such living conditions motivated the Cardinals to choose a Pope in a timely matter.
On the first day of the conclave, the Cardinals meet in the morning to celebrate the Holy Mass. At some point prior to the deliberations, “two ecclesiastics known for sound doctrine, wisdom, and moral authority” present two meditations to the Cardinals on the current problems facing the Church and on the need for careful discernment in choosing the next successor of St. Peter (RDG, #13d). In the afternoon, they assemble in the Pauline Chapel and invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While chanting the Veni Creator, they then proceed to the Sistine Chapel to begin deliberations (RDG, #50). That day, the first ballot takes place.
Before beginning the voting process, three groups of three Cardinals are chosen by lot: one to collect the ballots of any sick Cardinals who reside at St. Martha’s House but cannot attend the sessions (i.e. the infirmarii), another to “scrutinize” the counting of the ballots (i.e. the scrutineers), and another to check the ballots and the notes of the scrutineers to ensure accuracy (i.e. the revisers).
After the first day, two ballots are held in the morning, and two in the afternoon. During the voting, the Cardinal electors are by themselves. A two-thirds majority of votes cast by the Cardinal electors is necessary for the election of the Pope. The paper ballots are rectangular in shape and printed with the phrase “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” (“I elect as Supreme Pontiff”) at the top with space below for the Cardinal elector to write his choice. After making his selection, preferably in writing that cannot identify him, he folds the ballot twice.
Upon the altar in the Sistine Chapel is placed a receptacle covered with a plate. In order of precedence, each Cardinal elector holds his ballot so it is visible and carries it to the altar. When in front of the altar, he swears, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” He then places it on the plate, deposits the ballot into the receptacle, bows to the altar, and returns to his place. (The infirmarii collect the ballots of the sick Cardinal electors confined at St. Martha’s House and place them in the receptacle.)
After the last Cardinal elector has voted, the receptacle is shaken several times to mix the ballots. The ballots are then counted to certify that they equal the number of electors; if they do not, the ballots are burned (RDG, #68). Each ballot is then unfolded, the name is recorded by the first scrutineer (one of three cardinals selected to oversee the voting). The name is recorded again by the second scrutineer. Finally, the third scrutineer reads the name aloud and again records it. As each ballot is read, the third scrutineer pierces it with a needle through the word eligo, and all of the ballots are strung on a string; after the reading of the last ballot, the ends are tied, and the ballots are placed in a receptacle or on one side of the table. All of the electors can record the names as they are read.
After the last vote is counted, the scrutineers tally the number of votes for each name. If a nominee obtains a two-thirds majority, a new Pope has been elected. Three other cardinals, the revisers certify the count. The ballots are then burned (along with any notes taken during the voting), and white smoke appears in the air over the Sistine Chapel, alerting the crowd waiting in St. Peter’s piazza that a new Pope has been elected.
If no nominee receives a two-thirds majority, the ballots (along with any notes) are burned with wet straw (or chemicals in modern times) to cause black smoke, which alerts the crowds that a new Pope has not been elected (RDG, 70-71).
If a new Pope has not been elected after three days, the voting is suspended for one day for prayer, discussion, and spiritual exhortation. Thereupon, if a new Pope has not been elected after seven more ballots, there is another pause for prayer, discussion, and spiritual exhortation. This process may be repeated two more times. If a Pope still has not been elected, the Cardinal electors may decide either to accept an absolute majority decision for the next ballot, or select the two names who received the most votes in the preceding ballot and accept the one who then receives an absolute majority (RDG, #75-76).
When a Pope has been elected, the Dean of the College of Cardinals asks the consent of the one elected: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” Keep in mind that a person may refuse to accept. However, our Holy Father implored, “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. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office” (RDG, #86).
If the person accepts, he is then asked, “By what name do you wish to be called?” The Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations with his two assistants are then summoned; the Master prepares a document certifying the new Pope’s acceptance and his chosen name (RDG, #87).
If the new Pope is already a Bishop, he then immediately is the Bishop of Rome, and, as the Successor of St. Peter, possesses full and supreme power over the universal Church (RDG, #88).
However, if the new Pope is not already a Bishop, he will immediately be ordained one by the Dean of the College of Cardinals. This provision keeps open the possibility that the Cardinals could nominate and elect someone beyond the College of Cardinals and someone who is not a Bishop (RDG, #88). Technically, the conclave ends when the new Pope assents to his election.
When these formalities are completed, the Cardinal electors approach the new Pope and make an act of homage and obedience. An act of thanksgiving is then made. The new Pope is vested in the garments pertaining to his office (e.g. the white cassock). (Just as an aside, three sets of cassocks– small, medium, and large– are ready to clothe the new Pope for his first public appearance, until his own personal garments are made.) The senior Cardinal Deacon then announces to the waiting people in the piazza, “Habemus Papam” (“We have a Pope”), and then proclaims the new Pope’s name. The new Pope then appears and imparts the apostolic blessing for the first time as the successor of St. Peter (RDG, #89).
After the solemn ceremony of his inauguration as Pope, the Holy Father takes possession of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome (RDG, #92).
While these regulations seem very exacting, we must not forget the role of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the conclave, the Cardinal electors, individually and collectively, implore the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such divine aid was best exemplified in the election of Pope John Paul II. Who would have thought that the fifty-eight-year-old Archbishop of Cracow, Poland (at that time a communist country behind the Iron Curtain and under the control of the atheistic Soviet Union) would be elected Pope? He was not one of the media’s papabili or one of the Vatican curial officials. But what a great blessing he has been and is for our Church. Truly, one day he will be known as “Pope John Paul II, the Great.” Therefore, we may rest assured that, whenever the occasion will arise, another Successor of St. Peter will be elected under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead the Holy Roman Catholic Church.