Papal Conclave 101: The Mechanics of Electing a New Pope

The election will be conducted according to a ceremonial and confidential process.

(photo: Catholic News Agency)

VATICAN CITY — By the time all 115 grand electors travel the short distance from their Vatican City residence to the Apostolic Palace at 3:45pm on Tuesday, many will have clear favorite candidates in mind.

Their discernment process over the past few weeks appears to have been conclusive: The cardinals’ “unanimous” decision last Friday to begin the conclave March 12 suggests quite a few minds are made up. The consensus, therefore, is that this conclave could be relatively brief and may well be over by Friday.

There’s “no reason to believe it will take long,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists Saturday. The average length of a conclave over the past century has been three days.

Shortly before 4:30pm in the Pauline Chapel, a magnificent 16th-century place of worship containing the last two paintings of Michelangelo, the cardinals will participate in a short ceremony, over which the senior cardinal in the hierarchy — Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re — will preside. After proclaiming the words, “May the Lord, who guides our hearts in the love and patience of Christ, be with you all,” Cardinal Re will invite his confreres to process towards the Sistine Chapel.

As he does so, he prays words that include: “May the Lord direct our steps along the path of truth, so that, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and all the saints, we may always do that which is pleasing to him.”

During the procession into the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals will sing the Litany of the Saints, followed by Veni Creator Spiritus, the Latin hymn invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. A few names in the litany have been introduced but are not customarily recited. These include the patriarchs and prophets Abraham, Moses and Elijah, St. Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia, St. Patrick of Ireland and some popes, including St. Pius X.

As they enter the site of the conclave — swept of bugging devices and complete with specially furnished chairs, tables and an elevated floor — the magnitude and weight of their responsibility will be all too real as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment towers above them.

With the electors having taken their places, Cardinal Re will administer an oath to them by reading aloud a Latin text that promises to “observe faithfully and scrupulously the prescriptions” contained in Universi Dominici Gregis, the apostolic constitution on the papal elections.

The cardinal electors, Cardinal Re will say, must “promise, pledge and swear” that whoever is elected “will commit himself faithfully to carrying out” the Petrine ministry and “not fail to affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See.” The oath also reminds them to observe rules governing secrecy and to “never lend support or favor” to any outside interference or intervention.

Total Confidentiality

Total confidentiality regarding what transpires during the election, and any violation of that confidentiality, is taken extremely seriously. During the course of the conclave, the camerlengo, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and three assistants act as vigilanti.

They are also assisted by trustworthy technicians who will have ensured that all of the off-limits area is free of surreptitiously installed devices, concealed with the intent of recording or transmitting what takes place. Intentional use of such instruments “is absolutely forbidden,” as is any communication or conversation with persons outside. The cardinals are also not allowed to receive messages, newspapers or publications of any kind, nor follow news bulletins via audio or video transmissions.

In his recent motu proprio Norma Nonnullas, Benedict XVI introduced the penalty of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See for anyone violating this norm of confidentiality.

After Cardinal Re has administered the oath, the electors will then individually swear upon it. While placing their hands on the page of sacred Scripture, they will each say:  “And I, X Cardinal X, do so promise, pledge and swear. So help me God and these holy Gospels, which I touch with my hand.” 

When the last of the electors has sworn this oath, the master of papal liturgical celebrations, Msgr. Guido Marini, gives the order extra omnes, ordering all those not taking a direct part in the election to leave the Sistine Chapel immediately.

At this juncture, one of two commissioned conclave preachers, Cardinal Prospero Grech, will share a meditation, directing the minds of the grand electors to the grave task before them, on the need to act with right intention for the good of the universal Church — solum Deum prae oculis habentes (having only God before their eyes).

The 87-year-old Maltese cardinal and Msgr. Marini will then leave the Sistine Chapel, and the cardinal electors are now completely alone with God.

Cardinal Re will then ask those present whether the election may begin or if there are still points requiring clarification. If the majority agrees that there is nothing to prevent the process from beginning, it starts immediately.


Voting Commences

The papal election consists of four “scrutinies” (votes) a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, except on Tuesday, when there will be only one vote. But the first scrutiny has three phases to get the ball rolling. The first phase — called the pre-scrutiny phase — comprises the preparation and distribution of the ballot papers by the masters of ceremonies, who will have been readmitted into the chapel. At least two or three ballot papers are given to each cardinal elector.

During the second phase, the junior cardinal deacon will draw by lot three cardinal electors to be scrutineers, another three to be infirmarii to collect the votes of any sick electors and three more to be revisers, double-checking the vote counts. The final phase is the actual voting: Anyone who is not an elector must again leave the chapel, and the compilation of the ballot papers begins.

Voting is done in secret, each elector writing legibly the name of the person of his choice, if possible in handwriting not easily identifiable as his, in a manner that the completed paper can be folded lengthwise. Up until the conclave of 1958, cardinal electors could sign their names on the papers; now it is totally anonymous.

Each cardinal elector, holding his completed and folded ballot aloft between thumb and forefinger, and in view of all the others, then processes with it to the large chalice-like urn placed in front of the scrutineers. There he stops and declares aloud: “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.” After placing his ballot in the urn, he then bows in reverence and returns to his place.


Counting the Ballots

Once all 115 have voted, the scrutineers, seated at a table in front of the altar, add up all the votes that each individual has received. This process, too, is full of ritual.

The first scrutineer takes a ballot, unfolds it and notes the name of the person for whom the vote was cast. He passes it in silence to the second scrutineer, who likewise notes the name written on the ballot before passing it to the third scrutineer, who reads it out in a clear voice, audible to all the cardinal electors present so that they can hear and record the vote. He himself writes down the name he has just read aloud and then inserts a needle through the word Eligo (I elect …) on each ballot, drawing a thread through to be knotted securely at both ends, so that they’re not misplaced.

The sum of votes obtained by different papabili (cardinals believed capable of becoming pope) is calculated and recorded on a separate sheet of paper. This concludes the second phase of the election by scrutiny.

If anyone has obtained two-thirds of the votes cast plus one (in this election, 77 votes), then he has been canonically and validly elected pope. Otherwise, another scrutiny is held. Either way, “revisers” must check the ballots and notes taken by the scrutineers to make sure that the scrutiny has been conducted faithfully.

From Wednesday onwards, if a second ballot needs to take place, it will be held immediately. All ballot papers will be burned at the end of the morning or afternoon session, including any personal notes the electors may have made in the course of the voting. The results of the vote, however, are placed in a sealed envelope and kept in a specially designated archive.

The Vatican stressed last week that if no pope is elected in the first four days of voting that the cardinals will take a pause on the fifth day (Saturday, March 16) in order to “pray, speak freely among themselves and listen to a brief exhortation given by the senior cardinal in the Order of Deacons.”

The voting will then resume with two days of voting and a pause for prayer on the third day, until the 34th vote on the afternoon of the 11th day. In balloting thereafter, only the two names that received the greatest number of votes in the previous scrutiny will be voted upon. Again, one of these two candidates must receive at least two-thirds of the votes (Benedict XVI changed it from a simple majority in 2007) if they are to be elected, and these two candidates cannot vote.


Gauging Support

The first vote is significant, as it will allow the cardinal electors to get the “lay of the land” in a concrete way. As Jimmy Akin explains here, up until now, the electors have a vague idea of support for various candidates; now, they will be able to factor in that real backing in the next ballot.

Some candidates will gain support; others will lose it. And if the leading candidates in the first vote fail to win a two-thirds majority after several ballots, support will be transferred to someone else.

John XXIII once noted how candidates bob up and down during votes “like peas in a pot of boiling water.” A cardinal may keep climbing up until he is near the two-thirds majority, but then fade, as people conclude he hasn’t the numbers and switch to someone else. He may then later re-emerge when other candidates similarly lose favor.

Italian Vatican observers are predicting that Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is likely to do well in the first ballot, possibly acquiring between 30 and 40 votes. 

But American cardinals Sean O'Malley and Timothy Dolan, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer are also expected to poll well in early voting, possibly acquiring anywhere from 12 to 20 or more votes.

Other cardinals to receive a scattering of votes in the first scrutiny could be Cardinals Turkson, Tagle and Erdo, according to some Vaticanists, but this is all mere speculation.

The Holy Spirit will be at work, and he is known for springing surprises.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.


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