A little over thirty years ago, I was a seminarian studying in Rome. Here I am standing in Saint Peter’s Square with some of my classmates, waiting for the white smoke which would elect Pope John Paul II. I can still remember the enormous crowd packed into the square as the Holy Father came out on the balcony and greeted the people of Rome and of the world as their new Bishop and Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ.
And then there was the death of Blessed Pope John Paul II. At this point in my life, I was serving as an official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and served as their spokesman on most of the TV Networks, from Hardball to Nancy Grace.
Many of you remember those days: the long vigil of prayer...the waiting as a weak and very sick Holy Father slowly died. Remember when he appeared at the window just three days before he returned to his father’s house and tried to bless us. But replete with frustration all he could muster was a weak sign of the cross on the tens of thousands gathered in the square below him.
And remember the Funeral...we’ve never seen one like it with everyone who was anyone, as they say, gathered to pay tribute to Peter. And then, just days later, as the world gathered in Saint Peter’s square and we heard ANNUNCIO VOBIS GAUDIUM MAGNUM and listened to and loved Pope Benedict XVI for the first time.
My recollections of those days of deep mourning for Blessed Pope John Paul II and of the seven years which have passed are marked with a certain sadness at the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a wise and gentle pastor and one of the finest teachers of the faith who has ever worn the shoes of the fisherman.
Allow me but one small personal recollection from just over three months ago in the course of an audience with the Vox Clara Committee, a group of senior prelates which I serve as Executive Director. Having recently been named Rector of Saint John's Seminary, I bragged to the Holy Father that Saint John's was completely filled with wonderful and highly talented men, to which he replied "Filled? How wonderful! Please tell them that I will pray for each of them."
And I know those were not just words. I know he prayed for our seminarians, as he prayed for all the whole Church, most especially all those in need. He is, more than anything else, a good pastor, our priest, who leads us to Jesus.
I thought it might be helpful if I briefly outlined the three phrases of Electing a Pope which will unfold over the coming weeks. The entire process is regulated by the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (The Lord’s Universal Flock), promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1996.
The first phase surrounds the extraordinary event of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI from the Papal Office, an event which will take effect at 8:00pm Rome time on February 28th in accord with Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law. At that precise moment we enter a Sede Vacante, or a vacancy in the Holy See. This interregnum, which normally follows the death of a Pope, lasts until the Holy Father’s election.
The Vatican Press Office has made clear that upon his resignation the Holy Father will leave the Apostolic Palace and remain at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer home in the Castelli Romani. When renovations on a monastery inside the Vatican walls has been completed, the Holy Father will return to Vatican City for a ministry of prayer and reflection. Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.
The second phase in this process begins with the convening of the College of Cardinals under the leadership of the Dean of the College. The College will be convened as a General Congregation on March 1st. All members of the College, including those over 80 and ineligible to vote in the Conclave, may still attend this Congregation.
The Executive Board of the General Congregation is called the Particular Congregation and it is composed of the Cardinal Camerlengo (Cardinal Taricisio Bertone, presently Secretary of State to the Holy See) and three Cardinal Assistants (chosen by lot, every 3 days).
The Particular Congregation sets the date for the conclave and leads the discussions of the General Congregation on a wide variety of subjects relevant to the preparations for the Conclave. Normally this process takes fifteen to twenty days from the death of the pope, including nine days of mourning, known as the novemdiales. However, with the resignation of the Holy Father, the novemdiales are not required, which could mean an opening of the conclave as early as six days after his resignation, as early as March 6. In any case, the date for the opening of the conclave will not be later than twenty days from Feb 28, or March 18th.
The third Phase is comprised of the actual election of the Pope by those members of the College of Cardinals under the age of eighty. On the day the conclave opens there will be a Morning Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica, followed by an afternoon procession from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel (Veni Creator Spiritus)
The Cardinal electors will take an oath to observe the procedures set down by the apostolic constitution; to, if elected, defend the liberty of the Holy See; to maintain secrecy; and to disregard the instructions of secular authorities on voting.
The Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations will then order all unauthorized persons to leave the conclave with the words extra omnes and the deliberations will begin.
Who are they
Who are these Cardinal who will gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a Pope? There are a total of 209 Cardinals, of whom 118 are aged under 80. Cardinal Husar of the Ukraine will turn 80 before the Pope’s resignation on February 28th, so he will be ineligible to enter the conclave. Only Cardinals under the age of 80 are allowed to vote for the Pope.
Of the 117 Cardinal electors, 61 are from Europe, 19 from Latin America, 14 from North America, 11 from Africa, 11 from Asia and 1 from Oceania.
The College of Cardinals is led by its dean, the senior member of the Cardinals of the Order of Bishops, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. However, since Cardinal Sodano (born 1927) is over the age of 80, he is ineligible to vote in the Conclave and would be replaced within the conclave by the next senior member of the Order of Bishops under the age of eighty, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.
How do they vote?
First, the Papal Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Mario Marini, gives at least two ballots to each Cardinal Elector. Each ballot bears the words Eligo in Summon Pontificum (I elect as Supreme Pontiff)...and then there’s a space for a name to be written in.
Then the Secretary of the College of Cardinals, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations and the Masters of Ceremonies all leave the chapel as the junior Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal James Harvey of the United States, closes the door behind them.
Cardinal Harvey then randomly selects three Scrutineers and the Cardinal electors mark their ballots and one by one walk to the Altar and in the presence of the Scrutineers say: "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." and each drops his ballot into a receptacle on the altar.
When the votes have been cast the Scrutineers shake the container and remove, count and then tabulate the ballots, reading each name aloud. The Scrutineers then burn the ballots with a chemical that creates white smoke if one of the candidates has achieved the necessary two-thirds vote and a chemical which produces black smoke if the vote is inconclusive.
If no candidate receives a two-third majority on the first day, four ballots are cast on subsequent days, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. If after three days of voting, no candidate has achieved a two third majority, the Cardinals may choose to suspend the voting for a day, during which they will pray and hear an address from the senior Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal Tauran.
If, after seven more ballots, there is still no definitive result, the Cardinals may pause for another day of prayers with an address by the Senior Cardinal Priest, Cardinal Arns of Brazil.
If, after seven more ballots, there is still no definitive result, the Cardinals may pause for another day of prayers with an address by the Senior Cardinal Bishop, Cardinal Re.
If, after seven more ballots, there is still no definitive result, the Cardinals may pause for another day of prayer and discussion and from that point on only the two names which have received the highest number of votes would remain on the ballot and the two candidates lose their right to vote.
When a Pope is elected, the Cardinal Dean, Cardinal Re, goes to him and asks him whether he accepts election. If he does, he is vested in the Pope’s white cassock. The senior Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, then announces to the word:
Annuncio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam,
and the world meets the new Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome, the Roman Pontiff for the first time.