A Papal Succession Primer

A Papal Succession Primer

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

Pope John Paul II's death marked the end of his 26-year reign as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The man baptized Karol Wojtyla had risen from humble beginnings in Poland to become an authority not only in his own Church but also in world politics. His enduring popularity was in evidence on the day of his funeral as thousands gathered in Saint Peter's Square chanting, "Santo, Santo"—a call for instant sainthood.

In the days that followed news of John Paul's passing, public veneration for the late Pope was matched only by speculation about who would take his place. Centuries old and steeped in tradition, the process of picking the next Pope carries tremendous religious and political implications for the world's 976 million Roman Catholics—none of whom incidentally get a say in the matter. So how exactly is the new Pope chosen?

Enter the arcane laws of papal succession and the phenomenon of the "Conclave," derived from the Latin root meaning, "with a key." This term describes both the group of men selected by the Pope as assistants in Church administration (the Sacred College of Cardinals), and the enclosed place in which the group is sequestered until a selection is made.

Once the Pope's death is verified by the Camerlengo, the head of the College, a highly regulated series of events is set into motion to name the successor. According to its rules, the Conclave must begin fifteen to twenty days after the Pope's death; in this case, the Cardinals will enter on April 18 and will remain there until a new Pope is selected.

Cardinals eligible to vote are those aged 80 or younger; this time there are 117 electors, all but three of whom were chosen by Pope John Paul. Each Cardinal can bring into the Conclave a secretary and personal assistant, but the only others allowed in are cooks, waiters, guards, physicians, barbers, and other workers, all of whom are sworn to secrecy. Because the electors must be free from outside influence, telephones, cell phones, radios, televisions, Internet connections, letters, and newspapers are strictly prohibited.

Before each vote, the names of nine Cardinals are chosen at random to serve as Scrutineers (those in charge of counting votes), Infirmarians (those tasked with retrieving votes from ill Cardinals), and Revisers (those who verify the counts). The ballots themselves are rectangular and only one inch wide when folded down the middle. On the upper half, "Eligo in summum pontificem" ("I elect as supreme pontiff") is written, and on the lower half the name of the man selected; handwriting must be disguised. Each Cardinal carries his ballot above his head to the altar, recites the required lines, places his vote onto a small plate called a "paten," and then tilts the plate so the ballot drops into the waiting chalice without further touching.

Votes are counted by the three Scrutineers, the first of which uses the paten to cover the chalice and mix the ballots. Before tallying the votes, the last Scrutineer first counts the ballots without unfolding them to make sure the number of papers match the number of electors; if not, the ballots are burned and voting begins again. When tallying the votes, the first Scrutineer takes out each ballot, writes down the name on it, and passes it to the second Scrutineer, who also notes the name. The ballot then goes to the third Scrutineer who reads the name aloud and pierces it with a threaded needle, connecting all of the ballots. At the end of this process, the ends of the thread are tied together and the ballots are placed in an empty receptacle for burning.

A two-thirds majority is required to secure the papacy, but if the number of Cardinals is not divisible by three (as in this instance), two-thirds plus one is needed. In 1996, Pope John Paul II amended this law so that if after 12 or 13 days no one has achieved the required votes, the Cardinals may accept the candidate who has an absolute majority (one half plus one) on the next vote. If after three days, no Pope has been selected, the voting is stopped for reflection and prayer, which happens again after the next unsuccessful three days if necessary.

After each vote in which no one has received the required majority, the ballots are burned with a chemical that results in black smoke billowing from the Vatican Palace, signaling to the faithful in Saint Peter's Square that the Church is still without a leader. When a Pope has been selected, the ballots are burned without the chemical so that the smoke remains white. Before his passing, John Paul II amended this tradition so that in addition to white smoke, bells will be rung when a new Pope is chosen (to avoid past confusion over the color of the smoke).

Inside the Conclave, the newly elected Pope is asked whether he accepts the job and once voicing assent, immediately becomes the leader of the Church. He is then asked by what name he would like to be called—a tradition that goes back to the 6th century. The new Pope is then led to the Room of Tears, a small, red room adjacent to the Sistine Chapel where he dresses in papal attire. He returns to the Cardinals, receives his Fisherman's Ring (inscribed with his name), and each Cardinal pays his first respects. Then the new leader is introduced to the crowd in Saint Peter's Square from the balcony of the Vatican with the words "Habemus Papam!" ("We have a Pope!"). The new Pope gives the first Apostolic Blessing, "Urbi et Orbi" and the succession is complete.

The roots of the modern Conclave date back to the thirteenth century when Pope Gregory X set many of the rules that are still applied today. Because the laws of papal succession are clearly written and take into account many potential scenarios, there hasn't been much controversy surrounding the election of a Pope in recent times. Of course, since everything is done in sworn secrecy, it is possible that we just haven't heard about it. In any event, if there is the equivalent of hanging or pregnant chads in this election, don't look for a courtroom resolution—there is only one Judge who will render this verdict and send up the white smoke.