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

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

Wister said the word "conclave" is Latin for "locked up in a room," and its Catholic origins are in the papal elections of the 13th century, when one election dragged on for two years. The townspeople of Viterbo, a village outside of Rome, got tired of feeding and housing the churchmen, so they locked the cardinals in the episcopal palace, feeding them just bread and water, and a decision was made promptly.

The tradition of locking up the cardinals has continued, although the motive has changed. Conclaves now usually last a day or two, during which a strict voting ritual is observed.

The voting process

Following a special mass calling on the Holy Spirit to guide the decision, the cardinal electors, who must be younger than 80 years of age, file into the Sistine Chapel, where another sophisticated communcation jamming system has been installed, Wister said.

Each cardinal is given a pre-printed ballot on which he writes the name of his preference for pope. "And one by one they walk up and take an oath that they are voting for the man they consider the most suitable candidate without pressure, then the ballot is placed in (an) urn," Wister said.

After all the ballots have been cast, two cardinals who have been appointed as "scrutineers" over the election read each ballot aloud, while the electors keep their own personal scorecards.

If no one receives at least two-thirds of the vote, then another round of balloting takes place. Wister said as many as four rounds of voting can take place in one day.

After each round, the ballots are burned in a stove, which is stocked with pellets to assure the smoke snaking out of the chapel's chimney is either black (meaning no decision) or white (a pope has been elected).

"Given these cardinals are not very good at domestic chores, they have had problems with the stove. In the last conclave the damper didn't work and smoke filled the chapel," Wister said. "As solemn and important as (the conclave) is, it has its funny sides, too."

'A great joy'

Technically, any male in good standing can be elected to the position of pope — the official Bishop of Rome and successor of the ancient apostle Peter, the head of the church. But, Wister said, the last time a noncardinal was elected was in 1378 with the controversial Urban VI, whose papacy led to a schism in the church.

When a cardinal receives two-thirds of the vote, he is formally asked to accept and to declare what name he will be known by. The results are then notarized and sealed. The new pope is vested with a white cassock and red cape, and each cardinal individually promises obedience. The ballots are burned with pellets producing white smoke and the bell of St. Peter's rings.

The final event of the papal election occurs when the senior cardinal deacon declares in Latin, “I announce to you a great joy: We have a pope!” and the pope appears on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's square.

Challenges ahead

Speculation about who is likely to be elected pope has ranged from a cardinal from the growing regions of Africa and Latin America to one who can revive the church in Europe. Regardless of who he is or where he hails from, the new leader of the world's 1.2 billon Catholics will be taking on a burden that his predecessor said he was too old to manage.

For U.S. Catholics, the major and most immediate issue for the church to address is that of the sex abuse cases involving clergy. A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 34 percent of Catholics said the sex abuse scandal was the most pressing problem facing the church. A distant second was the church's lack of credibility, with 9 percent saying restoring public trust was the most important issue to address.

The same survey found that 27 percent said the Catholic Church's charitable works are its most important contribution to society, while 11 percent said providing a moral compass and values is the most important contribution.

Gathering the opinions of lay members around the world, the Associated Press reported a tension among those of the rank-and-file who want a leader who will bring the church into the 21st century and those who want to continue Benedict's conservative, traditional approach.

"What most agreed on, however," the AP reported, "was the church is in dire need of a comeback."

email: mbrown@desnews.com

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