Friday, February 15, 2013

First Day of the Conclave


Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J. is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, 1996). He was editor in chief of America from 1998-2005.

What happens on the first day of the conclave?

On the morning the conclave begins, the cardinal electors celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the afternoon they gather in the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace and solemnly process to the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals take an oath to observe the rules laid down in Universi Dominici Gregis, especially those enjoining secrecy. They also swear not to support interference in the election by any secular authorities or “any group of people or individuals who might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman pontiff.” Finally, the electors swear that whoever is elected will carry out the “munus Petrinum of pastor of the universal church” and will “affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See.” Another section of the constitution says that the new pope is not bound by any oaths or promises made prior to his election.

After the oath is taken, everyone not connected with the conclave is ordered out with the Latin words “Extra omnes,” “Everybody out!” The Sistine Chapel and the Domus Sanctae Marthae are then closed to unauthorized persons by the camerlengo. Outside the conclave, the camerlengo is assisted by the sostituto of the Secretariat of State, who directs Vatican personnel to protect the integrity and security of the conclave.

After everyone else leaves, an ecclesiastic chosen earlier by the college of cardinals gives a meditation “concerning the grave duty incumbent on them and thus on the need to act with right intention for the good of the universal church, solum Deum prae oculis habentes [having only God before your eyes].” When he finishes, he leaves the Sistine Chapel with the master of papal liturgical ceremony so that only the cardinal electors remain. The time in the chapel is for prayer and voting in silence, not campaign speeches. Negotiations and arguments are to take place outside the chapel. If they wish, the cardinals can immediately begin the election process and hold one ballot on the afternoon of the first day. If no one receives the required two-thirds vote in the balloting on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet again the next morning.

How does the balloting take place?

The regulations for balloting are very detailed to eliminate any suspicion of electoral fraud–no hanging chads here. Three “scrutineers” (vote counters) are chosen by lot from the electors, with the least senior cardinal deacon drawing the names. He draws three additional names of cardinals (called infirmarii) who will collect the ballots of any cardinals in the conclave who are too sick to come to the Sistine Chapel. A final three names are drawn by lot to act as revisers, who review the work done by the scrutineers. Each morning and afternoon, new scrutineers, infirmarii and revisers are chosen by lot.

The electors use rectangular cards as ballots with “Eligo in summum pontificem” (“I elect as supreme pontiff”) printed at the top. When folded down the middle the ballot is only one inch wide. Each cardinal in secret prints or writes the name of his choice on the ballot in a way that disguises his handwriting. One at a time, in order of precedence, the cardinals approach the altar with their folded ballot held up so that it can be seen. After kneeling in prayer for a short time, the cardinal rises and 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 the ballot in a silver and gilded bronze urn shaped like a wok with lid. There is a second smaller urn for ballots cast in the Domus Sanctae Marthae by cardinals too ill to go to the Sistine Chapel.

The first scrutineer shakes the egg-shaped urn to mix the ballots. The last scrutineer counts the ballots before they are unfolded. If the number of ballots does not correspond to the number of electors, the ballots are burned without being counted and another vote is immediately taken. If the number of ballots does match the number of electors, the scrutineers, who are sitting at a table in front of the altar, begin counting the votes.

The first scrutineer unfolds the ballot, notes the name on a piece of paper and passes the ballot to the second scrutineer. He notes the name and passes the ballot to the third scrutineer, who reads it aloud for all the cardinals to hear. If there are two names on a single ballot, the ballot is not counted. The last scrutineer pierces each ballot with a threaded needle through the word “Eligo” and places it on the thread. After all the ballots have been read, the ends of the thread are tied together and the ballots thus joined are placed in a third urn. The scrutineers then add up the totals for each candidate. Finally, the three revisers check both the ballots and the notes of the scrutineers to make sure that they performed their task faithfully and exactly.

To be elected, two thirds of the votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present. Should it be impossible to divide the number of cardinals present into three equal parts, for the validity of the election one additional vote is required. Thus if all the current 120 cardinal electors are present, 80 votes would be required to elect a new pope.

The ballots and notes (including those made by any cardinal) are then burned unless another vote is to take place immediately. The ballots are burned by the scrutineers with the assistance of the secretary of the conclave and the master of ceremonies, who adds special chemicals to make the smoke white or black. Since 1903, white smoke has signaled the election of a pope; black smoke signals an inconclusive vote. The only written record of the voting permitted is a document prepared by the camerlengo and approved by the three cardinal assistants, which is prepared at the end of the election and gives the results of each session. This document is given to the new pope and then placed in the archives in a sealed envelope that may be opened by no one unless the pope gives permission.

How long can the conclave last?

The conclave lasts until a new pope is elected. The last conclave to go more than five days was in 1831: it lasted 54 days. In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year-and-a-half before the election of Innocent IV and for three-and-a-half years before the installation of Gregory X. Since then 29 conclaves have lasted a month or more. Often wars or civil disturbances in Rome caused these lengthy interregnums. Sometimes delays were caused by the cardinals themselves, who enjoyed the power and financial rewards of running the papacy without a pope. These abuses led to rules governing an interregnum and requiring the speedy calling of a conclave.

On the other hand, the 2005 conclave was over within 24 hours when Benedict was elected on the fourth ballot.