Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

How Popes are Elected

When a Pope dies,1 the "Cardinal Camerlengo" (Cardinal Chamberlain, known as the "Camerarius" in Latin) first verifies the death. Traditionally, this is done by striking the Pope's forehead gently thrice with a silver hammer while asking him, using his Baptismal name, if he is dead, e.g., "Karol Wojtyla, are you dead?" When there is no response from the dead Pope, the Camerlengo solemnly announces his death and removes the Fisherman's ring from the dead Pope's finger. This ring, along with the papal seal, are broken, and the Pope's bedroom and study are sealed up. The bronze doors of St. Peter's Basilica are closed, while its bells toll the death, and all the bells of Rome join in.

The Camerlengo (who is now in charge of the Church until a new Pope is elected) arranges the funeral. First, the Pope will lie in state in St. Peter's Basilica and will then be buried on either the 5th , 6th, or 7th day of the Novenendiales.

There will be a funeral Mass, to and from which his body -- placed in a cypress coffin -- will be borne by white-gloved "Gentlemen of His Holiness," lay Italian nobility who are members of families that have served such purposes throughout History.

His body will be put inside three coffins ultimately:

  • the first made of cypress, signifying his humanity
  • the second of lead and inscribed with a skull and crossbones. Inside this coffin the broken papal seal and documents describing his papacy are placed.
  • the third made of elm, signifying dignity of the papal office and on which is placed a plaque indicating his name and the date of his pontificate

He is then interred in a crypt underneath St. Peter's Basilica. During the nine-day period of mourning, known as novendiales, that follows the Pope's funeral a novena of Masses is said.

Most of the dicasteries of the Curia are suspended from operation during this all this time and until a new Pope is elected; only the very basic, day to day functions of "the Vatican" are carried out. Arrangements are made by the Camerlengo to elect a new Pope.

After choosing three assistant Cardinals, the Camerlengo will call a Conclave which will meet in the Sistine Chapel. The Conclave will consist of 120 Cardinal electors and takes its name from the Latin words "cum clave" -- "with a key." This gathering is so-called because it is conducted under the utmost secrecy, the Cardinals at one time being literally locked into the Sistine Chapel, where the voting takes place, until they came to a decision (nowadays they sleep in more comfortable quarters in the Vatican at night). The election process must begin between 15 and 20 days after the death. Upon entering the Conclave, the Cardinals swear an oath of secrecy, the penalties for breaking being automatic excommunication. The secrecy of the Conclave is taken so seriously, that the Cardinals cannot communicate with anyone in the outside world as it goes on, and even windows are painted over so they can't see out. Newspapers, television, radio -- all are disallowed.

The Cardinal Dean will read the following oath:

We, the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, of the Order of Bishops, of Priests and of Deacons, promise, pledge and swear, as a body and individually, to observe exactly and faithfully all the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, and to maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff or those which, by their very nature, during the vacancy of the Apostolic See, call for the same secrecy.

Each Cardinal affirms this oath by saying:

And I, N_____ Cardinal N_____ so promise, pledge and swear.

He places his hand on the Gospels and adds:

So help me God and these Holy Gospels which I now touch with my hand.

Once in the Sistine Chapel, another oath is taken. The Cardinal Dean will read the following oath:

We, the Cardinal electors present in this election of the Supreme Pontiff promise, pledge and swear, as individuals and as a group, to observe faithfully and scrupulously the prescriptions contained in the Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, published on 22 February 1996. We likewise promise, pledge and swear that whichever of us by divine disposition is elected Roman Pontiff will commit himself faithfully to carrying out the munus Petrinum of Pastor of the Universal Church and will not fail to affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and the liberty of the Holy See. In a particular way, we promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting; we promise and swear not to break this secret in any way, either during or after the election of the new Pontiff, unless explicit authorization is granted by the same Pontiff; and never to lend support or favour to any interference, opposition or any other form of intervention, whereby secular authorities of whatever order and degree or any group of people or individuals might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman Pontiff.

Each Cardinal elector will affirm:

And I, N_____ Cardinal N_____, do so promise, pledge and swear.

Placing his hand on the Gospels, he will add:

So help me God and these Holy Gospels which I touch with my hand.

The Cardinal electors (who, since Pope Paul VI, must be under the age of 80 to serve as electors 2) are given paper ballots inscribed with the words, "Eligo in suumum pontificem" ("I elect as Supreme Pontiff") with an area for them to write in their preference. These ballots are placed on the Altar by each Cardinal in order of seniority. The Cardinal will kneel and say aloud, "I call to witness the Lord Christ, who will be my judge, that I am electing the one whom, under God, I think ought to be elected." He then places the ballot on a paten, slides it into a large chalice, bows to the Altar, and returns to his seat.

These ballots are read aloud first by the Camerlengo, by each of his three assistants, and then tallied. When the ballots arrive at the third assistant, they are bound together by needle and thread. If no person has received a 2/3 vote, there is another vote. If still no Pope has been elected, the ballots are burned along with straw so that the smoke is black; if a Pope has been elected, the paper is burned alone so that the smoke is white. Crowds and media personnel gather at the Vatican to watch for those black or white smoke signals as they are the only way for the Conclave to communicate with the outside world until an official announcement of an election is made.

If after voting for three days, no Pope has been elected, a day is taken to rest, pray, and discuss. When voting is resumed, if seven more days pass with no decision being made, another day of rest and prayer is taken. Another series of seven ballots is held, followed by another day of rest and prayer, if necessary. Then again, another series of seven ballots is held. At this point, if still no Pope is elected, they may elect a Pope by absolute majority (i.e., 50%+1 instead of the 2/3 majority) or decide to vote only on the two candidates who ranked first and second in the most recent tally (this, too, is a novelty).

Once a Pope is elected, the elected person is asked by the Cardinal Dean:

Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?

He is then asked:

By what name do you wish to be called?

If he accepts, he becomes Pope and goes to a room called "The Room of Tears" to be vested in white soutane. The room is called this because so many new Popes break down and weep as they ponder the enormity of the sacred responsibilites they have assumed.  Spiritual father to a billion Catholics! Shepherd of souls! Vicar of Christ!

Once a Pope is chosen and the white smoke appears from the Vatican chimney, the bells of St. Peter peal wildly. Then the new Pope is introduced to the world with the words, spoken by the senior Cardinal Deacon 3:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam. Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum ___ Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem___ qui sibi nomen imposuit ___.

(I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope. The most eminent and reverend Lord, the Lord ___ Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church
___ who takes to himself the name ___.)

(You can hear this announcement at the 42:33 mark in the video below)

The new Pope goes to the balcony to impart an Apostolic blessing "Urbi et Orbi" (which means "For the City and the World"), and the crowd cheers "Viva il Papa!" ("Long live the Pope!").

A few days later, the first Papal Mass will be held at St. Peter's. On the way to the Altar, the procession stops three times and, at each, a piece of flax mounted on a reed is burned. As the flames die, the Pope hears the words, "Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi" ("Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world") to remind him that he is, indeed, a man, a mere mortal.

Note: Any Catholic man can become Pope, whether he is a priest or not, but most times, the new Pope will come from the Cardinalate and has long been considered "papabile" (able and likely enough to be elected Pope).

The Election of Pope Benedict XVI
Fox News, April 19, 2005

Just a little cultural side-note: there's a monument to Pope Sylvester II (A.D. 950 - 1003) in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Before a Pope dies, this monument is said to "cry" -- its marble said to moisten or "sweat."

In my opinion, arranging things such that no Cardinal over the age of 80 could elect a Pope was done to keep the then-Traditional older Cardinals from having a say. This rule, however, might come back to haunt the liberals; the younger seminarians of today are much more conservative than those of the last few previous generations, and if they have the intelligence and fortitude to learn what has not been taught to them and to proclaim Tradition, the rule might serve its opposite intended effect. 

3 "Cardinal Deacons" originally were members of the Roman Curia, theologians especially honored by the Pope, deacons who assist in the papal household, and the deacons who administer to the Roman dioceses. They were not members of the electing College of Cardinals. 

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