02/13/2013 11:03 am ET

Pope Election Process Draws On Tradition And Secrecy

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI will soon become the first pope to resign since 1415, short-circuiting many of the initial stages of electing a new pope. But the Vatican says the transition to a new papacy shouldn't be all that different from normal.

Of course, the traditional rituals associated with confirming the death of a pope and planning his funeral will not be necessary. But the process outlined below, rife with secrecy and tradition, will largely follow centuries-old protocol.

The Interregnum

Pending the election of a new pope, most of the cardinals who lead the Vatican's bureaucracy -- the Roman Curia -- leave office.

There are three exceptions. The camerlengo, who takes charge of property and money matters. The vicar of Rome, who continues to provide for the pastoral needs of Romans. And the major penitentiary, the official who grants absolutions and dispensations.

Until the conclave to elect the new pope opens, the College of Cardinals meets daily in a "general congregation" presided over by the dean of the college, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state under John Paul II. Attendance is optional for cardinals age 80 and over, and they do not vote in the conclave.

The Conclave Opens

The word conclave is derived from the Latin phrase for "with a key."

It was first used by Pope Gregory X in 1274 in a proclamation outlining the procedure for electing a pope in a meeting place that can be securely locked.

The conclave should open 15 days after the pope resigns but could be postponed to 20 days. All cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the new pope. Pope Paul VI limited the number of cardinal-electors to 120; currently 118 are eligible.

The cardinals live in seclusion in the Casa Santa Marta, a luxury residence inside the Vatican walls. They meet to vote under Michelangelo's famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica.

Once the conclave begins, a cardinal-elector may leave only because of illness or other serious reason accepted by a majority of his fellow cardinals. Everyone associated with the conclave -- doctors, nurses, confessors, masters of liturgical ceremonies, sacristans and various priest assistants and housekeeping and catering staff -- must swear never to tell anything they learn about the election.

The conclave opens in the morning with a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon, the cardinals, vested in scarlet robes, walk in procession in order of seniority from the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel to the chant of the ninth-century Latin hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus."

The cardinals take an oath of secrecy. They swear to accept no interference in the election and to observe the rules set down in the Apostolic Constitution on the election of a pope.

The master of pontifical liturgical celebrations then orders everyone who's not taking part or assisting in the conclave to leave -- the doctors, nurses, caterers and others -- the room, using the Latin phrase "extra omnes" (all out). Assisted by the undersecretary of state, he closes off the cardinals' hotel and the Sistine Chapel.

Following a meditation by a priest, whom the cardinals have chosen earlier, voting can begin immediately or the next morning.


The members of the College of Cardinals are divided into the ranks of cardinals-deacon, cardinals-priest and cardinals-bishop. Each day of balloting starts with the selection of three scrutineers who count the votes; three infirmarians who collect the ballots of any cardinals too ill to go to the chapel; and three revisers who review the ballot count. They are chosen by lot with the cardinal-deacon lowest in seniority drawing the lots.

Elaborate precautions are taken to ensure that there is no fraud. Each cardinal, disguising his handwriting, enters the name of his choice on a two-inch-wide card on which is printed at the top the Latin phrase "Eligo in Summum Pontificem" (I elect as Supreme Pontiff). He folds the ballot lengthwise to conceal the name.

The cardinals walk to the altar, one by one in order of precedence, holding the ballot aloft. Each prelate kneels briefly to pray and on rising declares, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one whom, before God, I think should be elected." He then places the ballot on a plate, which covers a receptacle, usually a chalice. Lifting the paten, he allows the ballot to drop into the receptacle. The cardinal infirmarians leave the chapel carrying a locked box with a slit top to collect the ballots of sick cardinals.

Counting the Ballots

Once all the cardinals have voted, the first scrutineer mixes the ballots by shaking the receptacle. The third scrutineer counts the still-folded ballots. If the number of ballots is not the same as the number of electors, the ballots are burned and the cardinals immediately vote again.

If the number of ballots is correct, the scrutineers begin the count seated at a table in front of the altar. The first scrutineer unfolds each ballot, silently notes the name written on it and hands it to the second scrutineer, who does the same and hands it on to the third, who reads the name aloud and records it. The cardinals may also keep a tally.

At the end of the count, the scrutineers announce the total number of votes each candidate has received. Any candidate who has received two-thirds of the votes of those present is elected pope. If the total is not divisible by three, the required number of votes for election is two-thirds plus one.

After the results are announced, the third scrutineer threads the ballots together with a needle, which he inserts through the word "eligo" (or "elect") printed on each voting card. He ties a knot at each end and turns the bundle of ballots and the scrutineers' records over to the three revisers to be checked.

If all is in order, the scrutineers, secretary of the conclave and masters of ceremonies burn the ballots and all notes taken by the scrutineers and cardinals in a special stove. Since 1903, the masters of ceremonies have added chemicals to color the smoke. If the tens of thousands of people waiting in St. Peter's Square see white smoke, they know that the pope has been elected; if they see black smoke, he has not.

The only remaining record of the voting is a document that the camerlengo prepares at the end of the election giving the results of each session. The document is approved by the assisting cardinals, given to the new pope and then placed in a sealed envelope in the archives to be opened only with papal permission.

Breaking an Impasse

If the voting is inconclusive, the cardinals may continue to cast up to four ballots each day -- twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. If they still have not elected a pope after three days, voting is suspended for a day of prayer, informal discussion and a brief spiritual exhortation by the senior cardinal-deacon.

If the impasse continues, there are seven more votes, a suspension and exhortation by the senior cardinal-priest, followed by another seven votes, a suspension and exhortation by the senior cardinal-bishop and a final seven votes.

Pope John Paul II introduced rules in 1996 that the requirement for a two-thirds majority could be waived after 12 days, and the pope may be chosen by an absolute majority. But Benedict canceled this provision in 2007.

Under the new rules, after 12 days, the choice of candidates is limited to the two men who received the most votes in the last round. The two candidates do not vote in this round and, to be elected pope, one needs to achieve a two-thirds majority.

The New Pope

Once the election is decided, the dean of the College of Cardinals asks the winner, "Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?"

It has been many centuries since the answer was no.

St. Philip Benizi, for one, fled a conclave in 1271 and hid until another candidate was chosen. St. Charles Borromeo declined in the 16th century, and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine declined in 1621.

The new pope is asked by what name he wants to be called. For the past 1,000 years, it has been the custom for the pope to change his name upon being elected. The last to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in 1555.

The cardinals make an act of homage and obedience to the new pope and join in a prayer of thanksgiving.

The senior cardinal-deacon then steps out onto the central balcony of St. Peter's Square. He pronounces a Latin formula including the phrase, "Habemus papam (We have a pope)" and announces the name the new pontiff has taken.

The pope appears and gives his first "urbi et orbi" blessing to the city of Rome and the world.



Pope Benedict XVI Resigns

02/12/2013 10:45 PM EST

Pope's Brother Says Benedict XVI Won't Return Home

AP reports:

REGENSBURG, Germany — Pope Benedict XVI is planning to stay out of the public eye following his retirement at the end of the month but may stand ready to advise his successor if asked, his brother said Tuesday after talking with the pontiff.

Speaking to reporters at his home in the southern German city of Regensburg, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who was ordained on the same day in 1951 as his brother Joseph, said he didn't expect Benedict's continued presence in the Vatican to intimidate the next pope.

Continue reading here.

02/12/2013 9:46 PM EST

The Latest Betting Line On The Next Pope

Keith Thomson writes in a blog post:

Much is at stake with the selection of Pope Benedict XVI's successor, including a lot of money. Paddy Power, Europe's largest bookmaker, has already taken more than £100,000 in bets, and expects to see multi-million-pound action closer to next month's conclave at the Sistine Chapel.

While Las Vegas casinos refuse to accept such bets for reasons of "taste," Paddy Power is one of several major international bookmakers currently offering papal markets, not only on who will be the next pope, but what papal name he'll choose, his country of origin, and the length of the papal conclave, among others.

Continue reading here.

02/12/2013 6:09 PM EST

Topless Feminists Hail Pope Benedict's Resignation

A group of topless activists scandalized visitors at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday by disrobing in public to celebrate Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.

The small group of women, all affiliated with radical feminist group FEMEN, flashed their breasts and banged on bells in the cathedral, shouting slogans such as, "Bye Bye Benedict" and "No more homophobe," according to the Agence France-Presse.

Continue reading here.

02/12/2013 6:06 PM EST

With Pope Benedict's Resignation, Gay Rights Advocates Hope For Change

HuffPost's Lila Shapiro reports:

Jeannine Gramick, a Roman Catholic nun and co-founder of a U.S. ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics, met Pope Benedict XVI only once, by chance, on a plane flying from Baltimore to Rome in the late-'90s. Because of her work with the lesbian and gay community, Gramick had by then been under investigation by the Vatican for more than two decades.

The encounter was serendipitous, Gramick recalled Monday after hearing news of Benedict's resignation. Gramick and leaders at her ministry had been worried that she would be excommunicated. She was traveling with the head of her order to Munich, via Rome, to pray that she would keep her place in the church. When she boarded the plane, she saw Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became pope, sitting with two empty seats beside him. She mustered her courage and sat next to him. "When he found out who I was, he just smiled and said 'Oh, I've known about you for 20 years,'" she said.

Continue reading here.

02/12/2013 5:52 PM EST

Nuns Pray Inside St. Peter's Basilica

vatican nuns pray

Nuns pray inside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. With a few words in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI did what no pope has done in more than half a millennium, stunning the world by announcing his resignation Monday and leaving the already troubled Catholic Church to replace the leader of its 1 billion followers by Easter. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

02/12/2013 5:24 PM EST

Vatican Plans Big Send-Off For Pope Benedict XVI

Reuters reports:

VATICAN CITY, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Cardinals around the world began informal contacts to discuss who should next lead the Church through a period of major crisis and the Vatican said it planned a big send-off for Pope Benedict before he becomes the first pontiff in centuries to resign.

At a Tuesday news conference on how the pope plans to spend the next two weeks before he steps out of the limelight, the Vatican also disclosed that the 85-year-old Benedict has been wearing a pacemaker since before he was elected pope in 2005.

Continue reading here.

02/12/2013 5:10 PM EST

Cardinal Seán O'Malley, OFM, Cap: Pope Benedict Was Committed To Ensure Abuse Would Not Be Repeated

Yesterday morning the Church and the world learned that Pope Benedict XVI, following an extended period of prayer and reflection, discerned that he would resign the papacy at the end of this month. This news certainly came as a great surprise to all of us. It would be reasonable to consider that the Holy Father's advancing age and the responsibilities of being the leader for more than one billion Catholics, including the demands of extensive international travel, played a central role in his decision. We join the universal Church in offering prayerful gratitude for the Holy Father's faith, courage and his leadership as the successor of Peter.

At this time it is appropriate for the Church and all people of good faith to reflect on Pope Benedict's legacy and achievements. He brought unique capabilities to the papacy as a highly qualified scholar and teacher, and as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in service to Blessed John Paul II. His fidelity to maintaining the truth and clarity of the Catholic faith, to cultivating ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and in reaching out to inspire the next generation of Catholics have been great gifts to us all.

During the course of the past eight years Pope Benedict embraced the papacy with the heart of a kind and caring shepherd, always holding the spiritual and pastoral care of the people of God to be the highest priority. The Holy Father also generously used his superior intellectual gifts, well established through his reputation as a renowned scholar, to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church with people from all walks of life throughout the world. He guided the Church through unprecedented challenges, always finding strength in Jesus' promise to be with us always, and led a world-wide renewal of evangelization that will influence the Catholicism for generations to come.

The Archdiocese of Boston in particular has been greatly blessed by Pope Benedict's care and concern.In all of my conversations with him he has always asked me to assure this local Church of his prayers and encouragement. I will always hold the Holy Father's 2008 meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and our presentation of the Book of Names of living and deceased survivors, as one of the most powerful experiences of my life and priesthood.

His overwhelming sorrow that such heinous crimes were perpetrated on the survivors and his heartfelt expression of love and concern were deeply moving, as was his absolute commitment that the abuse never be repeated and that the Church maintain her vigilance to do everything possible to insure the safety of children.

While there will be much speculation in the days and weeks ahead regarding who will follow the Holy Father to the Chair of Peter, at this moment we are called to reflect on Pope Benedict's leadership; offering prayers of gratitude for this servant of Christ who so dearly loves all of God's people. At this extraordinary moment in the life of the Church, we pray for the wisdom and grace of the Holy Spirit and the strength given by our Lord, who, assures us that he will be with us always.

02/12/2013 4:58 PM EST

Cardindal Francis Arinze: 'We Know You Have Done This For The Love Of The Church'

Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship, releases a statement:

02/12/2013 3:17 PM EST

The Monastery Where The Pope Is Expected To Live After He Resigns

mater ecclesiae monastery

A view of the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, right, next to the Tower of San Giovanni, inside the Vatican State where Pope Benedict XVI is expected to live after he resigns, on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. For months, construction crews have been renovating a four-story building attached to a monastery on the northern edge of the Vatican gardens where nuns would live for a few years at a time in cloister. Only a handful of Vatican officials knew it would one day be Pope Benedict XVI's retirement home. On Tuesday, construction materials littered the front lawn of the house and plastic tubing snaked down from the top floor to a dump truck as the restoration deadline became ever more critical following Benedict's stunning announcement that he would resign Feb. 28 and live his remaining days in prayer. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

02/12/2013 3:15 PM EST

FEMEN Protest Against Pope Benedict XVI

femen protest

Activists of the Women's Movement FEMEN, protest against the Pope Benedict XVI who announced his resignation yesterday, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)