Electing a new pope: Catholic heirarchy follows process, rituals developed over centuries

Published: Friday, March 8 2013 9:50 a.m. MST

In this photo provided Friday, March 1, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI is saluted by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, left, as he leaves the Vatican to board a helicopter where he will depart to the pontiff's summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Benedict XVI left the Catholic Church in unprecedented limbo Thursday as he became the first pope in 600 years to resign, capping a tearful day of farewells that included an extraordinary pledge of obedience to his successor. At left is Benedict's personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gaenswein. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho)


VATICAN CITY — When the Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals decided this week to halt daily press briefings by American cardinals, they invoked a policy that has existed for centuries: The election of a pope is secret.

While the process and rituals the cardinals follow are spelled out in public church documents, carrying out the election is done behind locked doors and a cloak of technology to prevent communication with anyone not part of the proceedings.

"They don’t want any outside influence on the vote. That is the reason for the secrecy and isolation," said Rev. Robert J. Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University. "When you go back in history, there were many occasions where governments put pressure on the conclaves" to elect or not to elect a particular person to lead the church.

Beginning with this past week's general congregation meetings among the cardinals and extending to the voting procedure that begins Tuesday, the cardinals are following exact rules and rituals that date back centuries to elect the new leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world.

And when the new pope accepts his appointment, he will be taking over a church facing many challenges, from clergy sex abuse scandals and mismanagement within the Vatican to explosive growth in the developing world and empty cathedrals in the church's historic homebase of Europe.


The informal process of electing a new pope began when Pope Benedict XVI shocked the church by announcing his retirement — the first pontiff to step down, rather than dying in office, in 600 years — on Feb. 11.

Since then the cardinals, known as the princes of the church, who are appointed by the pope and among whom a successor will be elected, have been talking among themselves about possible candidates and pressing issues facing the church.

"It’s going on now over the phone and in nice Roman restaurants," Wister said.

While it is considered bad form to campaign, a more discreet process takes place in which cardinals informally talk among themselves and listen carefully to those they are sizing up as a possible successor. A more formal venue where cardinals air their views about the state of the church are the general congregation meetings, which began this week and where the date of the conclave — or actual election — will be decided.

Despite efforts to silence cardinals before the conclave, reported leaks to the press about who is saying what during the general congregation gatherings continue. But the most serious security measures won't be employed until the 115 cardinals who will choose the new pope are housed during the election process.

Wister described the Casa Santa Marta as akin to a mid-level Marriott hotel where the Vatican Curia, or administration, lives. But during the conclave, the cardinal electors move in. Communication jamming devices prevent mobile or Internet service to or from the building. The cardinals, who have taken a vow of secrecy, are not to speak to each other.

An anonymous cardinal's diary detailing the 2005 conclave described his surprise at the locked-down living conditions. "In the afternoon I took over my room at the Casa Santa Marta. I put down my bags and tried to open the blinds because the room was dark. I wasn't able to. One of my fellow brothers asked a nun working there, thinking it was a technical problem. She explained they were sealed. Closure of the conclave ... "

The cardinals can walk or ride a bus to the Sistine Chapel, where voting takes place, but they are escorted along a path lined with guards.

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