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2005-APR-19: Pope Benedict XVI's election process

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Who selects a pope?

Popes have been selected by the Roman Catholic Church's college of cardinals since the early 12th century. This was established as official policy of the Church at the Lateran Council III in 1179 CE.

The pope is elected in a process called a "conclave." The word "conclave" is derived from two Latin words which mean "with a key." It refered to the past practice of locking the cardinals in a somewhat confined space -- lately the Sistine Chapel -- and not allowing them to emerge until they have elected a new pope. On 1996-FEB-22, Pope John Paul II updated the rules governing the conclave. The cardinals will no longer be confined to the Sistine Chapel, day and night, throughout the entire election process. They will be assigned comfortable living quarters in suitable locations within the Vatican.

Only those members of the College of Cardinals who have not reached their 80th birthday are allowed in the conclave. They are all men because women are not even allowed to be ordained as priests in the Church. They currently constitute a group of about 120. Almost all have been personally selected by Pope John II. Conclaves have a history of selecting unexpected cardinals as the next pope.

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The election of Pope John Paul II:

Pope John Paul I reigned for only 33 days, from 1978-AUG-26 to SEP-28. His is believed to have died from a pulmonary embolus due to an untreated blood problem.

On 1978-OCT-14, 111 cardinals went into the conclave to elect his successor. There were 55 Europeans (including 26 Italians), 19 Latin Americans, 13 North Americans, 12 Africans, 9 Asians and 4 from Oceania. For the first time in the history of the Church, the number of European cardinals was surpassed by the number of non-European cardinals in a conclave. Joseph Cardinal Siri and Giovanni Cardinal Benelli were allegedly an early favorites. However, neither was able to receive sufficient votes. The impasse was resolved on the eighth ballot when a compromise candidate, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, 58, of Poland was elected pope on 1978-OCT-16. He chose the name John Paul II. He was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. 1

Pope John Paul II died on 2005-APR-02 at 9:37 PM (2:37 PM EST) in his private apartment in Rome. Two of the intimate group who were at John Paul II's bedside when he died say that his final word was "amen" (may it be so).

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The election of Pope Benedict XVI:

In 1970, Pope Paul VI issued a decree which declared that cardinals over the age of 80 could not take part in a conclave. It was considered a revolutionary development at the time. Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, 80 years old at the time, described the decision as:

"... absolutely unheard of, arbitrary, revolutionary, in contempt of a centuries-old tradition." 2

In 1975, Pope Paul VI issued new legislation concerning the conclave which introduced new security regulations, required the cardinals to recite terrifying oaths, and required that cardinals would normally enter the conclave alone. In the past, cardinals were allowed to have one or two "conclavists" -- secretary-assistants -- to accompany him in the conclave. He could have three if he was ill. Under the new regulations, only seriously ill cardinals could have an assistant, and then only if they could prove that they needed medical attention. 3

Pope John Paul II issued  his apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis in 1996. "He abolished any provision for election by acclamation or by any means other than secret ballot." He also made other changes relating to voting procedures and accommodation for the Cardinals.

The procedure for electing a pope is now:

bullet A votive mass is held between 15 and 20 days after the death of the pope.

bullet Later that day, the cardinals walk to the Sistine Chapel.

bullet The cardinals take an oath of secrecy.

bullet At the cry "Everybody out" all who are not taking part in the conclave leave the chapel.

bullet A ballot may be held on the first day.

bullet There will typically be four ballots on the second and subsequent days: two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

bullet Each cardinal picks up a blank ballot paper, writes the name of his choice for pope, folds the paper twice, recites an oath, and deposits it into the chalice at the altar. He bows to the altar and returns to his place.

bullet The ballots are counted to confirm that all of the cardinals have voted.

bullet If the count is correct, three scrutineers independently write down the name from each ballot. The third scrutineer reads the name out loud, so that the cardinals can keep count if they wish.

bullet Each ballot is then threaded onto a string with a needle.

bullet If no candidate receives a two-thirds majority, the voting is immediately repeated.

bullet If no cardinal is elected on the second ballot, all of the ballots and paper records are burned. In earlier times, damp straw was added to the stove to produce black smoke which exited through the roof of the chapel. Now, chemicals are added to the paper before burning to produce dark smoke. This is visible to outside observers and indicates that no pope had been elected.

bullet On the fourth day, voting is suspended for a maximum of one day. The cardinals are expected to pray, and conduct discussions among themselves.

bullet This sequence continues. If the new pope is not elected after 13 days and about 30 ballots, then the cardinals can decide, by a simple majority vote, to change the two-thirds majority rule. They can decide to go with a simple majority.  They can decide to vote on the two candidates who received the largest number of votes in the preceding ballot.

bullet When a pope is elected, the dean of the college asks if he is willing to accept the decision. If he does, then he has become, at that moment, the new pope. He is asked by what name he wishes to be known. The ballots are then burned with a different chemical, producing white smoke.

bullet The dean of the college leaves the Sistine Chapel and tells the collected crowd the name of the new pope. The dean then presents the new pope to the crowd, who recites his first Urbi et Orbi ("To the City and to the World") blessing. 4

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Recollections of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor:

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, archbishop emeritus of Westminister, took part in the selection of Pope Benedict XVI. As the conclave was being assembled to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, he said:

"I remember the senior cardinal going up to Cardinal Ratzinger and saying: 'Your Eminence, will you accept to be the supreme pontiff of the Catholic church?' And we all waited. He said: 'No. I can't.' And then he said: 'I accept as the will of God.' And then the cardinal said: 'What name will you take?' And he said: 'Benedict.' He must have thought about it the night before."

"Immediately he went out and behind there's a Vatican tailor who has three white cassocks: one large, one medium and one small. And after about 10 minutes he came back in his white cassock and sat down and we all went up one by one and kissed his ring and declared our loyalty to him and our fidelity to the faith with his guidance. And then he said: 'Now we must go out to the balcony'."

"So we followed him out to the balcony and then he was announced to the huge crowd outside and then we went back and had supper with him in the Casa di Santa Marta, the place where we were all staying. It was a very moving event and a very solemn event indeed."

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Peter & Margaret Hebblethwaite, "The Next Pope," HarperSanFrancisco, (2000), Page 71. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Ibid, Page 52.
  3. Ibid, Page 54.
  4. Ibid, Page 56 to 60.
  5. Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, "Choosing the pope: Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor recalls the 2005 conclave," The Cuardian, 2013-MAR-08, at:

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Copyright © 2005 and 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-APR-04
Latest update: 2013-MAR-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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