03/08/2013, 00.00
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The conclave, seven centuries of history and stories

by Franco Pisano
Since 1271, electors for the 'Roman pontiff' have been locked up 'cum clave'. Since 1059, only cardinals are involved in selecting Peter's successor. No phones, mobile or iPads are allowed inside. Current rules are the result of lessons learnt through time. A majority of two thirds is needed of those present and voting. Upon election, the new pope goes to the 'Room of Tears'.

Rome (AsiaNews) - On 12 March, the cardinals with the right to elect the pope will be locked up "with a key", cum clave, until they choose the next successor to Peter. The rules were laid down almost seven and half centuries ago, by the conclave of Viterbo in 1271. The 20 cardinals initially in attendance (two died during the conclave) were unable to agree, divided between pro-French and pro-German factions. After three years (1,006 days) without a result, the people of Viterbo, to force them to decide, first locked them up in the papal palace, then cut back on their food, and finally forced them to be under the heavens by removing the roof to the building. Tedaldo Visconti, who was not even a priest, was elected and took the name of Pope Gregory X.

This was the first "conclave" held behind closed doors, but starting in 1059, cardinal-bishops had already began electing the pope by themselves, discarding the old custom of having the bishop of Rome, i.e. the pope, selected by the clergy and the people of the city.

Despite the change, a connection with the clergy of Rome does remain. Each cardinal is assigned a church in the city or one of the suburbicarian dioceses. In the latter case, prelates belong to the Order of Bishops. Prelates who have one of the oldest parishes belong to the Order of Priests. Prelates who have a deaconry belong to the Order of Deacons. Patriarchs representing Eastern Catholic Churches are the exception and are therefore not part of the clergy of Rome.

Belonging to one or the other order has practical consequences in terms of precedence in the conclave. For example, if the dean of cardinals is 80 or over, which is the case with the present dean, the cardinal "who is first in order and seniority gives a brief address to those present, exhorting them to carry out the election in the manner prescribed and with the right intention, having before their eyes solely the good of the universal Church."

All conclave rules adopted over time are a product of history. The conclave of 1492, the first one to be held in the recently completed Sistine Chapel, anticipated the excommunication of cardinals who might sell their vote. A Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia was elected that year as Alexander VI. Soon afterwards, stories emerged that his election was bought with the help of a rich cardinal, Ascanio Sforza, brother of Ludovico il Moro, duke of Milan. Julius II, successor to Alexander VI, issued Cum tam divino in 1505, a papal bull that declared null and void elections based on simony and imposed excommunication (hence exclusion from the conclave) on any cardinal who accepted money or other forms of compensation for their support.

With his Apostolic Constitution Vacante Sede Apostolica of 25 December 1904, Pope Pius X lifted the ban on cardinals accused of simony removing "the nullity of simoniacal election laid down by Julius II or by any other Pontifical Decree, in order that the validity of the election of the Roman Pontiff may not be challenged for this reason". In his Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici gregis of 1996 (n. 35), Pope John Paul II confirmed the repeal.

Conclave rules were changed, again under exceptional circumstances, in 1800, following the death in exile of Pope Pius VI who had been deported to Valence (France) by Napoleon. His successor, Pope Pius VII, was selected in Venice, on the island of san Giorgio Maggiore, across from the Giudecca canal.

External factors also played a role in changing conclave rules in 1903. After Leo XIII died, his secretary of state, Card Rampolla del Tindaro, was touted as his successor, but the Emperor of Austria, exercising an ancient power, vetoed his name. The cardinals ended up electing Card Giuseppe Sarto who, as Pope Pius X, a few months later banned all vetoes in papal elections.

Thus, no one can "accepts under whatsoever pretext, from whatsoever civil authority, the task of proposing the veto or exclusiva, even in the form of a simple wish, or to reveal such either to the entire electoral body assembled together or to individual electors, in writing or by word of mouth, directly and personally or indirectly through others, both before and during the Conclave. We intend this prohibition to include every possible interference, opposition and desire whereby the secular authorities of whatever order and degree or whatever group or individual persons would wish to interfere in the election of the Pontiff."

In 1970, in his Motu Proprio Ingravescentem aetatem Paul VI set a limit of 120 cardinal electors to a conclave, excluding cardinals who were 80 and over. John Paul II modified the rule so that the age limit of 80 would apply at end of a pontificate, a matter of just a few days of difference.

John Paul II also established the rule that, during a conclave, cardinals would be housed at the Domus Sanctae Marthae and not in partitions set up in the rooms next to the Sistine Chapel. The aim was to prevent situations like the one in 1978 when Card Landazuri, wearing a bathrobe, asked Card Suenens if he could use his shower since his "cell" did not have one.

Even though they are housed outside the conclave, cardinals cannot be approached by anyone, when they are taken by bus to the Sistine Chapel for example, or when they go for a walk. Benedict XVI made this change in his Motu Proprio Normas nonnullas of 22 February 2013 to bring up to date John Paul II's rules to take into account the case of papal renunciation.

In addition to the cardinal electors, masters of ceremonies, confessors, two doctors, and nurses are allowed in 'Saint Martha House' and the Sistine Chapel as well as other "trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability, in order to ensure that no audiovisual equipment has been secretly installed in these areas for recording and transmission to the outside."

Electors, for their part, must avoid any communication with and from the outside world. No telephones, mobile or iPads are allowed.

The actual conclave usually begins in the afternoon since the morning is usually dedicated to the Missa pro eligendo Papa.

In the afternoon, the cardinals walk in procession from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel where they take their oath, the extra omnes is pronounced (everyone out) and the doors are shut. Voting can then begin.

A majority of two thirds of those "present and voting" is needed to elect a pope. For that purpose, cards will be used, each "rectangular in shape," bearing "in the centre of the upper half, in print if possible, the words Eligo in Summum Pontificem; on the lower half there must be a space left for writing the name of the person chosen".

After the elector has made his choice, he brings the card, holding "it up so that it can be seen and carries it to the altar, at which the Scrutineers stand and upon which there is placed a receptacle, covered by a plate, for receiving the cards."

"Having reached the altar, the Cardinal elector kneels, prays for a short time and then rises and pronounces aloud the following form of oath: 'I call to witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I consider should be elected.' He then places the card on the plate, with which he drops it into the receptacle. Having done this, he bows to the altar and returns to his place."

As cards are read, they are pierced with a threaded needled, through the word Eligo, and placed one next to the other. Once the vote is over, they will be burnt along with "whatsoever kind of notes" any cardinal "may have in his possession concerning the result of each" ballot. Burning cards and notes will generate the fumate. In the past, wet or dry straw was added for burning. Today, some chemicals are used.

At the end of the conclave, the Cardinal Camerlengo files a report that will be "placed in a sealed envelope," which only the pope can open.

If a pope is not elected after three days, voting will be suspended for a day "to allow a pause for prayer, free discussions among the voters and a brief spiritual exhortation".

The same will happen after seven sessions, and the next seven. If this happens, the next vote will be held between the two prelates with the most votes. A two third majority will still be necessary, but the two frontrunners will not be allowed to vote.

Once someone is elected, he will be asked, "Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?" If the answer is yes, the next question will be, "By what name do you wish to be called?" Once the name is given, the Papal Master of Ceremonies acting as notary, along with two assistant Masters of Ceremonies acting as witnesses, will draw up a document recording the acceptance by the new Pontiff and the name taken by him.

After the cardinals' acceptance of the new pope, the person elected will go to a room where he will put on a white cassock. For the new pope, this will be a moment of solitude in what is called the 'room of tears' because he will cry after reflecting upon the huge task that lay ahead of him.

Lastly, an announcement will be made to the people, "Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus papam."

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