by Christopher Bellitto
When a pope dies, a formal process begins that certifies his death, carries out his funeral, and ensures that the selection of his successor takes place according to the prescribed procedures. The busiest person during this period is the camerlengo, or papal chamberlain, who functions something like a chief of staff.
The camerlengo's first task is to certify that the pope is dead. Traditionally, this has included tapping the pope's forehead, perhaps with a little silver hammer, and calling him three times by his first name. No response means that the pope is dead, but more precise medical equipment may be used today.
InterregnumThe time between the death of one pope and the election of the next is called the interregnum (Latin for "between the reigns"). The cardinals get to Rome quickly by plane and gather frequently as a college, or group, to follow the instructions of Romano Pontifici Eligendo and Universi Dominici Gregis for arranging the funeral and conclave.
The cardinals proclaim a nine-day period of mourning and burial for the pope. They also oversee the destruction of the pope's ring and seal. These are scratched over and smashed because they are used to seal and authenticate papal documents. Destroying them insures that no documents can be forged after his death. Then the cardinals decide how the pope's body will be available for public viewing, when the funeral will take place, and other details following directions left by the pope in his will. The pope is buried between four and six days after he dies, along with his broken ring, seal, and copies of his most important statements and decisions.
ConclaveThe biggest event of the interregnum is the conclave*, in which the cardinals select the new pope. The rules of succession stipulate that the conclave must be held no less than 15 but no more than 20 days after the pope dies.
Electing a new pope wasn't always so straightforward. For many centuries powerful Roman families bargained so one of their sons or brothers could be pope as well as bishop of their home city of Rome. Wars and rivalries delayed elections. After Clement IV died in November 1268, for nearly three years there was no pope. Finally, civil officials in the Italian city of Viterbo, where the cardinals were meeting, got tired of waiting. They locked the cardinals up in a building, tore the roof off to expose them to the sun and rain, and threatened to feed them only bread and water. Gregory X was elected almost immediately.
Pope Gregory X (1271-1276)--possibly to avoid the turmoil of his own election--stipulated that the cardinals should gather in the city where the pope died. They were to be locked in with a key to avoid outside influence (in Latin, "with a key" is cum clave from which we get the English word conclave). Gregory clearly wanted a swift election.
During the conclave, if eight days passed without an election, the cardinals got only bread, water, and wine.
Some changes have been made. Today, the cardinals elect the new pope in Rome, even if the pope dies elsewhere. But the conclave is still designed to separate the cardinals from all distractions and focus them on the task at hand.
In secretEvery attempt is made to keep the proceedings secret. After the cardinals celebrate a special Mass, they file into the Vatican's Sistine Chapel while the first of several electronic sweeps is made to find audio and/or visual bugs. There are very few people other than the cardinals present. These include two technicians, medical personnel, and some secretarial and liturgical assistants. All of these people take an oath to keep secret what they see and hear forever unless specifically permitted to talk by the pope.
After the search for bugs is complete, the conclave doors are sealed inside and out with keys and ribbons sealed with wax. From this point on, the cardinals are on their own. No one but the cardinals is in the Sistine Chapel for the voting.
VotingAs in the past, two-thirds of the votes are required for election. If the number of cardinals cannot be equally divided into three parts, the vote must be two-thirds plus one.
John Paul II decreed that if three days of voting pass without an election, the cardinals should take a break of up to a full day before resuming their voting. If seven ballots pass fruitlessly, they should pause again. This cycle continues, but if about eight days go by without an election, the cardinals can discuss what to do next, including restricting their votes to the top two vote-getters in the latest ballot.
Voting follows a strict procedure. The cardinals gather twice a day and each session has two ballots. For each session, each cardinal is given two or three rectangular paper ballots on which are printed the Latin words, Eligo in Summum Pontificem (I elect as Supreme Pontiff). He writes in the name of his candidate but disguises his handwriting, then folds the paper twice.
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Each cardinal approaches the Sistine altar alone with the ballot held up to be seen. He places the ballot on a plate, often the paten used to hold the hosts for consecration during Mass, which sits on top of a two-foot tall chalice. The cardinal tips the paten into the chalice so that all can see that he has indeed cast his vote. He then says loudly, "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 bows to the altar and returns to his place.
After all the ballots have been deposited, the folded ballots are mixed and then counted. If the number of ballots does not equal the number of cardinals, this vote is invalid and another immediately follows. If the number of ballots and electors matches, three cardinals start the tally.
The first two take out a ballot, mark the name down, and pass it along. A third does the same, but he reads the name aloud. This last cardinal passes a thread through the word Eligo on each ballot with a needle so it can't be counted twice and ties all the ballots in a loop. If one candidate does not receive enough votes another vote is immediately taken. If the second vote does not elect a pope, they either break for lunch or quit for the day.
All the ballots, tally sheets, and the cardinals' notes are burned after each session in a little stove just off the Sistine Chapel. One official record of the voting is sealed and deposited in the Vatican archives, to be opened only with the explicit permission of the pope. If no man is elected, the papers are burned and the black smoke travels up a 60-foot pipe to tell the crowd that they are still without a pope. When a man is elected pope, white smoke signals the election. Wet straw used to be mixed with the ballots to create the white smoke, but today a few chemical pellets are added.
The new popeWhen a candidate receives the required number of votes, he is approached and asked in Latin, "Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?" When he says yes, he is asked, "By what name do you wish to be called?" Once he answers, he is the pope.
At this point the new pope is taken to the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel and vested in papal robes which are kept there in several sizes. The new pope then takes a seat at the altar to receive the cardinals' homage and obedience. According to a German cardinal, the first words John Paul I (1978) said after he sat in this chair were, "God will forgive you for what you have done to me."
InstallationThe news spreads quickly after the white smoke signals a new pope. Shortly afterward the announcement is made from a balcony to the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square: "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam!" ("I announce to you a great joy. We have a pope!") The new pope's birth name is then announced, along with the name he has taken as pope. He then appears and gives his blessing.
Shortly afterward, the pope is formally installed. He is not ordained pope, since he has already been ordained as a deacon, a priest, and a bishop. Paul VI (1963-1978) was the last to wear the famous triple crown or tiara, and it appears unlikely this rather worldly symbol will be used again, so the event won't be called a coronation. Both John Paul I and John Paul II chose instead to wear a regular bishop's mitre and the pallium, a special circle of cloth worn around the neck to symbolize the pope's jurisdiction as the chief pastor. Their ceremonies were called installations or inaugurations.