Passing on the KeysGARY SHIRLEY
It’s election year in America. Time to endure that painful process where politicians, pollsters and pundits all vie for the national spotlight. Truth is stretched beyond recognition. Promises vaporize. Supposed chaos will prevail if we do not elect some enlightened candidate to save the nation.
a Pope Dies
our relative success with this “experiment in liberty,” we Americans may think
that elected office is our own invention. Fact is, this young republic is still
on training wheels. The Catholic Church has trod this path for the better part
of two millennia. Perhaps it is worth revisiting the oldest electoral process
in the world, which gives one billion Catholics their Supreme Pontiff. The Apostolic
Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, promulgated by Pope John Paul II
on February 22, 1996, provides clear guidance on how the Church is to go about
selecting the next Vicar of Christ.
The passing of a pope is one of
those moments that can virtually define an era. It is among the pivotal events
that serve as milestones in a life span, such as JFK’s fateful visit to Dallas
or Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. A vacancy in the See of Peter prompts
an outpouring of love coupled with a whirlwind of speculation. It closes the door
of history and opens the window of opportunity. First, however, we grieve.
The Apostolic Constitution prescribes a nine-day mourning period in honor
of the deceased pope, with burial to occur between the fourth and sixth days.
This duration has both a devotional aspect and a practical one. Proper mourning
protocols must be observed for this citizen of the world. As the pope is a Head
of State, the Vatican will serve as host to both secular and religious leaders
who attend the funeral rites and pay the respects of their particular society.
With few exceptions, the business of the Church is essentially stopped during
this time of reflection and prayer. Even any Councils or Synods in progress are
immediately suspended until approved to continue by the new pope.
period of time is largely overseen by an individual known as the Cardinal Camerlengo
or Chamberlain. His job, as described in the Apostolic Constitution, is “...safeguarding
and administering the goods and temporal rights of the Holy See.” He meets with
the College of Cardinals to decide issues that include funeral and interment details,
approval of expenditures, destruction of the Fisherman’s Ring, lodging assignments
for the arriving electors and selection of the theologians who will prepare the
two key meditations. These meditations are mandated by the Constitution and will
ultimately be delivered to the gathered College of Cardinals. The meditations
focus on the problems facing the Church and the need for discernment in the coming
election. Given that the Cardinal electors hail from every corner of the globe,
these meditations will help them to understand the “State of the Church.”
Under Lock and Key
The College of Cardinals is restricted
by the Constitution to a total of 120 eligible voters. As long as a Cardinal has
not yet reached his 80th birthday on the day of the pope’s death, he may cast
a vote in the election. Thanks to the vision of Pope John Paul II, the College
enjoys a multi-national composition, which is sure to translate into a rich harvest
of qualified papabile, or papal candidates. Not all Cardinals are bishops,
so it is possible that the electors could choose a man for the papacy who does
not possess the highest degree of Holy Orders. As the pope is first and foremost
the Bishop of Rome, the Apostolic Constitution calls for the immediate episcopal
consecration of the new pontiff, if necessary.
The electoral process
must begin no sooner than 15 and no later than 20 days after the death of the
pope. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel. During the proceedings the
Cardinals will be required to lodge in the Vatican City State, primarily in the
newly-constructed Domus Sanctae Marthae residence. This is to ensure a
degree of isolation from outside influences as they undertake their sacred duty.
The electors are restricted from using any method of personal communication or
being exposed to the newspaper, radio, television or Internet. They may not even
be approached for conversation as they proceed each day from their lodging to
the Sistine Chapel.
The papal election process begins with a solemn
Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. This is followed by a dignified procession of the
Princes of the Church into the Sistine Chapel. Here sacred oaths are administered
to each elector and associated papal staff to ensure the perpetual secrecy of
the proceedings. Once these tasks are completed, staff members are dismissed and
the chapel doors are locked forthwith. The conclave (from cum clave, “with
a key”) now begins.
Absent any questions on election procedure from
the Cardinals, the balloting begins immediately. Total secrecy is paramount. Each
elector casts a single handwritten vote, carrying it forward to be placed in a
designated vessel for counting. One by one the votes are checked, re-checked and
recorded aloud. The ballots are then pierced with a needle and gathered together
on one thread to preclude any being misplaced. On the first day of the conclave,
only one ballot is taken. Each subsequent day will include two ballots in the
morning and two in the afternoon, as necessary.
The gathering in the
Sistine Chapel is not about speeches, debates or discussion. It is about discerning
the will of the Holy Spirit and reflecting that will in a ballot. Throughout this
process, the Cardinals assemble for each session and vote immediately. Should
the vote not yield a clear winner, the second vote is taken with no delay.
A two-thirds majority is necessary for election. Should the number of electors
not be divisible by three, then two-thirds majority plus one additional vote are
required. Should a pope not be elected in three days, the conclave will enter
a day of prayer and dialogue. The Constitution then allows for another seven balloting
opportunities (three additional days). These are again followed by another day
of prayer should no pope be chosen. On several occasions in Church history the
process of selecting a pope has gone on for years!
and Universal Authority
Given the global presence of the papacy,
the outside world anxiously awaits the results of the voting. Television cameras
remain focused on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, awaiting a simple, yet telling,
billow of smoke. If no pope is elected during a particular session, all the paper
ballots are burned along with some straw, giving off black smoke. Success in electing
a pope is indicated by all the paper ballots being burned alone, resulting in
white smoke. Just prior to that moment, two important questions had been asked
of the man so chosen: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”
A positive response is followed by the second query, “By what name do you wish
to be called?” These answered, the newly-elected pope immediately possesses the
full and universal authority of the office.
Once he is duly empowered,
the Cardinals come forward one by one to offer homage and pledge obedience to
the new Vicar of Christ. Papal tailors are standing by to outfit His Holiness
for the official introduction to the world. In short order, the announcement goes
out from the Apostolic Palace to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square and to the world,
Habemus papem (“We have a pope”). The new Holy Father steps out onto his
balcony and greets the faithful while offering his blessing, Urbi et Orbi,
“to the city and the world.”
It has been over twenty-five years since
the last papal conclave. Technology has taken quantum leaps. Empires have imploded.
Kings, presidents and prime ministers have come and gone. Still, Holy Mother Church
goes on, protecting and promulgating the truth and promise of Jesus Christ. She
ensures that the line of leadership succession from St. Peter continues through
the ages by providing the world’s Catholics with visible authority Catholics
who extend a welcome and offer a prayer for the newest Vicar of Christ and “Servant
of the Servants of God.”
Shirley. "Passing on the Keys." St. Catherine's website.
article was published for the St. Catherine's website and the published on Catholic
Exchange. It is offered here with permission of the author.
Shirley, his wife, and three children are members of St. Catherine of Siena Parish
in Kennesaw, Georgia, where Gary serves as catechist in the adult education program.
This article is part of a monthly series Back
to the Basics and is used by permission of the author. Gary can be reached
via email at email@example.com.
© 2004 St.Catherine of Siena.org