04/14/2005, 00.00
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Voting for new pope begins Monday

Rules, numbers and mysteries of the Conclave.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) -- The 115 cardinal "electors" (those under the age of 80: never in Church history have there been so many) will gather on Monday in Conclave to elect the 264th successor of Saint Peter. The 265th bishop of Rome, the new pope, will have the title of Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of Saint Peter, Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Rome, Servant of the servants of God, Sovereign of the Vatican City State. In the almost 2000 years of Church history, there have been some 300 elections, counting both legitimate and illegitimate elections (those of the anti-popes).

The novendiali, preparation, isolation

Currently, there are 140 cardinals (electors and not) effectively in Rome and, since the death of John Paul II, they are together guiding the Catholic Church, without however being able to take decisions, such as the naming of bishops, that pertain only to the pope.  They gather in meetings know as Congregations (general and particular) which are led by the cardinal dean, the German-national Joseph Ratzinger, and by the camerlengo (chamberlain), Spanish-national Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who is something of the administration of the Holy See. As a group, the cardinals are all dealing with normal administration and are studying the current problems of the Catholic Church, so as to have a better picture of who to choose as next pope. This period covers the nine days following John Paul II's funeral, known as the novendiali, dedicated to praying for the late pope.

This period ends this Sunday, after which, on Monday, the conclave begins. There is no predetermined limit to the duration of the conclave. It begins with the extra omnes ("all out") which will be declared by the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, Msgr Piero Marini.

As opposed to the last conclave in 1978, proceedings will no longer begin with the first cardinal of each order (bishop, priest and deacon) walking along the "Conclave enclosure" -- more or less the Apostolic Palace, including the Saint Damase Square -- ringing the bell that signals the extra omnes.  This time the "enclosure" covers the entire Vatican and will include, according to the instructions left by John Paul II, the cardinals' sleeping quarters, the Domus Sanctae Marthae (Saint Martha House), the much more comfortable quarters that will replace the cramped "cells" that used to be set up in the rooms and halls around the Sistine Chapel. Essentially, the cardinals will not really be "locked up" (as the term "conclave" suggests).  Nevertheless, they will not be able to have contact with the outside world, whether by telephone or by radio. There is no explicit ban of the use of Internet, but such a ban would seem to be implied, since the cardinal electors "are to refrain from receiving or sending messages of any kind outside Vatican City; naturally it is prohibited for any person legitimately present in Vatican City to deliver such messages. It is specifically prohibited to the Cardinal electors, for the entire duration of the election, to receive newspapers or periodicals of any sort, to listen to the radio or to watch television." (Universi dominici gregis, no. 57).

Actually, the cardinal-electors will not be the only ones to be admitted to Domus Sanctae Marthae, built in the late 1990s and which will, for the first time, be their place of residence during the conclave (voting, however, will take place in the Sistine Chapel as usual): masters of ceremonies, confessors, two doctors, nurses, and service attendants, who have sworn an oath to maintain secrecy and observe prescriptions, will also be admitted.

Voting, prayer and smoke signals

If the electors of the Roman Pontiff will reside then in the more hospitable Domus Sanctae Marthae, in order to vote, they will have to go, as dictated by tradition, to the Sistine Chapel. They will be taken by bus to the place in which such meetings (apart from the odd exception) have been held since 1492. But their first journey will be on foot, in procession from within the Apostolic Palace "at a suitable hour in the afternoon", invoking the assistance of the Holy Spirit as they sing the Veni Creator.

Voting will begin on the first day, but will be limited to one vote. Ballots are secret, which seems something to take for granted nowadays. Not so, in the past: the secrecy rule is relatively recent and was introduced in 1621.

As of the second day, votes are cast twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon.  To elect John Paul II's successor, a majority of "only" two-thirds (rounding up) is required, i.e. 77 votes out of 115.

For each vote, "each Cardinal elector, in order of precedence, having completed and folded his ballot, holds it up so that it can be seen and carries it to the altar (Editor's note, at the far end of the Chapel), at which the Scrutineers stand and upon which there is placed a receptacle, covered by a plate, for receiving the ballots. Having reached the altar, the Cardinal elector says aloud the words of the following oath: 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 on the plate, with which he drops it into the receptacle. Having done this, he bows to the altar and returns to his place." After votes are cast, and as ballots are read, they are pierced with a needle, "through the word Eligo (I choose, I elect)", tied with a thread and burned, together with the sheets of paper on which the cardinals have recorded results.

That fire was and remains the "fumata" or smoke signal of the Sistine Chapel's chimney pipe. At one time, the outcome could be discerned from the amount of smoke: in case of an inconclusive vote, straw was added to the ballots. In other words, a lot of smoke meant a pope had not been elected.  To give a more readable indication of proceedings, the colour factor was introduced: the smoke was made black, at one time with wet straw, then with black wax, for an inconclusive vote; white (dry straw, later white wax), if a pope had been elected.  This should be the case this time as well, with the added feature of St. Peter's bells chiming festively to announce the election.  But a trace of voting procedures remained and will remain: at the end of the conclave, the cardinal camerlengo drafts a report on the balloting "enclosed in a sealed envelope", which can be opened only by a pope.

As for the voting sessions, if after the third day a pope has not been elected, rules foresee a day of "prayer, informal discussion among the voters, and a brief spiritual exhortation". The same procedure applies after another 7 inconclusive voting sessions, and after yet another 7.  At that point, a new procedure can be adopted: a two-thirds majority can still be aimed for; otherwise, election by absolute majority or a run-off can be decided upon.  Nevertheless, balloting will always be in writing and secret.

Tears and the announcement

Once a candidate is elected, he will be asked "Do you accept your election as Supreme Pontiff?"; at one time, upon an affirmative reply, the cardinals let the canopy over their chair down, as an act of homage.  These canopies were of different colours (red or green), according to whether the cardinal had been "created" by the just deceased pope, and was therefore in mourning, or by a predecessor. These canopies no longer exist, if for no other reason, because of the lack of space due to the increased number in cardinals. The cardinals will nevertheless make an act of homage, the Conclave's final act, once the elected has been asked the final question: "By what name do you wish to be called?"

By then pope, the elected will be lead to the Chapel of Tears, a small room to the left of the altar, which takes its name from the tears newly elected popes shed on their new state. There, he will find three sets of vestments in varying sizes.  Despite the choice, he may not find the right size: they were all too large for Pius XII, and all too small for John XXIII.

The new pope will put on his white robe and the first of the cardinal deacons will announce to those gathered in Saint Peter's Square: "Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus papam" (I announce to you a great joy: we have a pope). (FP)
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