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Electing the Pope

The news has been filled of late with the story of John Paul II’s respiratory illness. This wouldn’t necessarily be significant news if it weren’t for the fact that John Paul’s health has been poor for some time. Given his age, one can only imagine that there is a flurry of activity, hidden from public view, in preparation for the selection of the next Pope should John Paul’s illness turn fatal.

Few Protestants are aware of the elaborate process by which the Roman Catholic Church selects a Pope (or Bishop of the Church of Rome). I thought you might enjoy learning how this is done.

As the time approaches, you will hear more and more the word “Conclave,” which literally means “with a key”. It refers to the placing of the electors in a locked room and refusing to release them until they have chosen someone as Pope.

Those who bear this responsibility constitute what is called the College of Cardinals (they have elected the Pope since 1179). They are a select group made up largely, but not exclusively, of bishops (a few distinguished theologians are included). All those in the College of Cardinals are chosen by the Pope. John Paul has appointed 116 of the 123 Cardinals who are eligible to vote (only those under 80 years of age can vote). As of 2001 there were 183 men in the College. Needless to say, this means that the Pope has tremendous power to influence who will be chosen to succeed him by appointing as Cardinals, should he desire, only those who are of one mind with him on theological and moral issues.

The word “Cardinal” itself most likely is derived from the Latin “cardo” or hinge, and suggests the role of the Cardinal as a connection or hinge between the Pope and the church and world. They wear red as a symbol of their willingness to die and shed their blood for the church.

Once the Pope dies, the person known as the “Camerlengo” (Italian for “chamberlain”) calls out his name three times to make sure he is dead (obviously this is merely traditional; if the Pope were in a coma he could hardly respond to his name being called out!). He then strikes the Pope’s forehead with a small silver hammer that bears the papal coat of arms. The hammer is then used to smash the papal insignia ring (apparently to prevent anyone from using it unlawfully).

During the Conclave all the Cardinals stay in a $20 million hotel on Vatican property known as “Casa Santa Marta”. There are no televisions, no radios, no newspapers, no telephones, and no internet allowed that might distract the Cardinals from the task at hand or that might allow them to communicate with those on the outside.

There is absolutely no recording allowed of anything that goes on and the Cardinals take a strict vow of secrecy. When the time comes to vote on a particular candidate, written ballots are used. It is standard practice for each Cardinal to disguise his handwriting so that no one may discover whether he has voted Yes or No. A two-thirds vote is necessary to win election.

If no one is elected after twelve days and thirty ballots, a simple majority of votes will win election.

After each round of ballots, they are meticulously burned. A special chemical is used depending on the outcome. If no one has received the necessary percentage of votes, a chemical creating black smoke is used. If a Pope is elected, a chemical producing white smoke is employed.

The candidate receiving this vote then declares “Accepto”, or “I accept”. The choice of his new name often is designed to signal the direction of his papacy and what he hopes will be the emphasis of his time in power.

Upon election of the new Pope, the words are proclaimed: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus papam!” Or, “I announce to you news of great joy. We have a Pope!”

And there you have it.