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  • Electing a New Pope

    by Anthony Parente

    In the event that the position of the Holy Roman Pontiff falls vacant it becomes the responsibility of the College of Cardinals to elect a new Pontiff. This is a process that has gone on for centuries and over the years changes have been made to ensure that the election goes both smoothly and quickly. There are strict guidelines that need to be followed and there are numerous traditions and rituals that take place.

    The period from when the Pope dies until a new Pope is elected the Cardinal Camerlengo is responsible for the government of the Church. The Camerlengo is also responsible for verifying that the Pope is in fact dead. In the past this was done by performing a Medieval ritual, which consists of the Camerlengo lightly striking the head of the dead pope three times with a silver mallet. Each time he does so he calls out to the pope by his birth name. The ritual of calling out the name three times is still performed, but the Camerlengo no longer strikes the head of the pope with a silver mallet. When there is no response an announcement is made to all those who are present that the pope is dead. The fisherman's ring and the papal seals are then broken. The Camerlengo's main responsibilities are to prepare for the funeral and burial of the pope as well as make all the arrangements for the election of a new pope.

    Within 15-20 days after the vacany of the papacy the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, excluding those Cardinals who are 80 years of age or older prior to the pope's death, enter the Conclave to elect a new pope. The total number of Cardinals can not exceed 120 and the conclave is held within the Vatican City.

    In the past the conclave was sealed and everyone was forced to live within the confines of the area. The conclave was not designed to hold 120 people. The idea was to make the area uncomfortable so that there would not be a long period of time before a new Pope was elected. The conclave was introduced in the 13th century by Pope Gregory X, who was elected nearly three years after Pope Clement IV died. By sealing them off from the world the Cardinals would be protected from outside interference and thus speed the process of electing a new pope.

    When the next pope is to be elected the Cardinals will stay in the hotel-like residence of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, which is just a short distance from the Sistine Chapel. They still will be prohibited from talking with anyone outside the conclave. They will not be allowed to watch television, read the newspaper or talk on the telephone. All necessary measures will be taken to ensure they are protected when they make the trip from the hotel to the Sistine Chapel and the conclave itself will be checked for listening devices.

    Balloting will take place inside the Sistine Chapel. There have been some changes to the balloting process over the centuries. In 1179 Pope Alexander III made it that a two thirds majority of the votes was needed in order to be elected pope. This rule stayed in effect until 1945 when Pope Pius XII changed it to two thirds plus one. Pope John Paul II made another change to this rule in his Universi Dominici Gregis in 1996. If after 30 elections have taken place and no one received two thirds of the vote a new pope can be elected by absolute majority, which is half of the votes plus one. After each ballot has been counted they are burned in the stove. Onlookers await for the smoke to come out of the chimney. If the smoke is black then a new pope has not been elected. If the smoke is white the election is over and a new pontiff has been chosen. Once a new Pontiff has been chosen the Dean of the College of Cardinals asks him if he accepts the position and by what name he would like to be referred to. If he agrees he becomes the next Holy Roman Pontiff. After all of the Cardinals present express their devotion to the new Pope he is taken to change into the papal vestment. Once he is ready he will make his journey to the main balcony of the Vatican where he will deliver his apostolic blessing.


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