The Path to the Papacy

Last week, we began a discussion about the election process for the successor of St. Peter, including the timing, place and need for secrecy. Now we will continue with the actual election process.



Please remember that the citations marked RDG are taken from Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Romano Dominici Gregis (1996), which updated the regulations concerning papal conclaves.

On the first day of the conclave, the cardinals meet in the morning to celebrate the holy Mass. At some point prior to the deliberations, “two ecclesiastics known for sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority” present two meditations to the cardinals on the current problems facing the Church and on the need for careful discernment in choosing the next successor of St. Peter (RDG, No. 13d). In the afternoon, they assemble in the Pauline Chapel and invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While chanting the Veni Creator, they then proceed to the Sistine Chapel to begin deliberations (RDG, No. 50). That day, the first ballot takes place.

Before beginning the voting process, three groups of three cardinals are chosen by lot: one to collect the ballots of any sick cardinals who reside at St. Martha’s House but cannot attend the sessions (i.e. the infirmarii), another to “scrutinize” the counting of the ballots (i.e. the scrutineers), and another to check the ballots and the notes of the scrutineers to ensure accuracy (i.e. the revisers).

After the first day, two ballots are held in the morning, and two in the afternoon. During the voting, the cardinal electors are by themselves. A two-thirds majority of votes cast by the cardinal electors is necessary for the election of the pope. The paper ballots are rectangular in shape and printed with the phrase “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” (“I elect as Supreme Pontiff”) at the top with space below for the cardinal elector to write his choice. After making his selection, preferably in writing that cannot identify him, he folds the ballot twice.

Upon the altar in the Sistine Chapel is placed a receptacle covered with a plate. In order of precedence, each cardinal elector holds his ballot so it is visible and carries it to the altar. When in front of the altar, he swears, “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.” He then places it on the plate, deposits the ballot into the receptacle, bows to the altar, and returns to his place. (The infirmarii collect the ballots of the sick cardinal electors confined at St. Martha’s House and place them in the receptacle.)

Inside the Passion of the ChristAfter the last cardinal elector has voted, the receptacle is shaken several times to mix the ballots. The ballots are then counted to certify that they equal the number of electors; if they do not, the ballots are burned (RDG, No. 68). Each ballot is then unfolded, the name is recorded by the first scrutineer (one of three cardinals selected to oversee the voting). The name is recorded again by the second scrutineer. Finally, the third scrutineer reads the name aloud and again records it. As each ballot is read, the third scrutineer pierces it with a needle through the word eligo, and all of the ballots are strung on a string; after the reading of the last ballot, the ends are tied, and the ballots are placed in a receptacle or on one side of the table. All of the electors can record the names as they are read.

After the last vote is counted, the scrutineers tally the number of votes for each name. If a nominee obtains a two-thirds majority, a new pope has been elected. Three other cardinals, the revisers, certify the count. The ballots are then burned (along with any notes taken during the voting), and white smoke appears in the air over the Sistine Chapel, alerting the crowd waiting in St. Peter’s piazza that a new pope has been elected.

If no nominee receives a two-thirds majority, the ballots (along with any notes) are burned with wet straw (or chemicals in modern times) to cause black smoke, which alerts the crowds that a new pope has not been elected (RDG, No. 70-71).

If a new pope has not been elected after three days, the voting is suspended for one day for prayer, discussion and spiritual exhortation. Thereupon, if a new pope has not been elected after seven more ballots, there is another pause for prayer, discussion and spiritual exhortation. This process may be repeated two more times. If a pope still has not been elected, the cardinal electors may decide either to accept an absolute majority decision for the next ballot, or select the two names who received the most votes in the preceding ballot and accept the one who then receives an absolute majority RDG, No. 75-76).

When a pope has been elected, the dean of the College of Cardinals asks the consent of the one elected: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” Keep in mind that a person may refuse to accept. However, our Holy Father implored, “I also ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God, who imposes the burden, will sustain him with His hand so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, He will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office” (RDG, No. 86).

If the person accepts, he is then asked, “By what name do you wish to be called?” The Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations with his two assistants are then summoned; the master prepares a document certifying the new pope’s acceptance and his chosen name (RDG, No. 87).

If the new pope is already a bishop, he then immediately is the Bishop of Rome, and, as the successor of St. Peter, possesses full and supreme power over the universal Church (RDG, No. 88).

However, if the new pope is not already a bishop, he will immediately be ordained one by the dean of the College of Cardinals. This provision keeps open the possibility that the cardinals could nominate and elect someone beyond the College of Cardinals and someone who is not a bishop (RDG, No. 88). Technically, the conclave ends when the new pope assents to his election.



When these formalities are completed, the cardinal electors approach the new pope and make an act of homage and obedience. An act of thanksgiving is then made. The new pope is vested in the garments pertaining to his office (e.g. the white cassock). (Just as an aside, three sets of cassocks — small, medium and large — are ready to clothe the new pope for his first public appearance, until his own personal garments are made.) The senior Cardinal Deacon then announces to the waiting people in the piazza, “Habemus Papam” (“We have a pope”), and then proclaims the new pope’s name. The new pope then appears and imparts the apostolic blessing for the first time as the successor of St. Peter (RDG, No. 89).

After the solemn ceremony of his inauguration as pope, the Holy Father takes possession of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome (RDG, No. 92).

While these regulations seem very exacting, we must not forget the role of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the conclave, the cardinal electors, individually and collectively, implore the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such divine aid was best exemplified in the election of Pope John Paul II. Who would have thought that the 58-year-old Archbishop of Cracow, Poland, (at that time a communist country behind the Iron Curtain and under the control of the atheistic Soviet Union) would be elected pope? He was not one of the media’s papabili or one of the Vatican curial officials. But what a great blessing he has been and is for our Church. Truly, one day he will be known as “Pope John Paul II, the Great.” Therefore, we may rest assured that, whenever the occasion will arise, another successor of St. Peter will be elected under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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