Cardinals, Conclaves and a New Pope

(By Fr. William Saunders, Arlington Catholic Herald)

When our Holy Father dies and goes to his heavenly reward, how will the next pope be 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," No. 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, No. 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 15 days after the death of the pope and not more than 20, the cardinals assemble at the Vatican (No. 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" (Introduction). (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 (No. 43). All unauthorized people are forbidden to communicate in any way with the cardinals (No. 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" (Introduction). 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 No. 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" (No. 44, 53).

Moreover, they are forbidden during the conclave to read newspapers or periodicals, to listen to the radio, or to watch television (No. 57). Any violation of secrecy will result in "grave penalties," including excommunication, as judged by the reigning pope (No. 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" (No. 51). "All technical instruments of any kind for the recording, reproducing, or transmitting of sound, visual images, or writing" are forbidden (No. 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 manner.