Papal election is complex process

Sunday, April 3, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:53 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cardinals from around the world have begun to gather in Vatican City for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and to take part in the election of a new pope, a process known as the conclave.

The historic series of events began with the verification of John Paul’s death, at 9:37 p.m. Rome time, by the cardinal carmelengo, Eduardo Martinez Somalo. The carmelengo then sealed the papal apartment and arranged for the fisherman’s ring, the official seal of the pope, to be broken, beginning an official nine-day period of mourning known as the novemdiales.

The funeral of the pope must take place within four to six days, after which he will entombed with his predecessors beneath St. Peter’s Church. Until then, John Paul will lie in state inside the Basilica.

For the next 15 to 20 days, until the conclave begins, papal electors will attend General Congregations, daily meetings to discuss funeral arrangements and the details of the balloting. Meanwhile, the Particular Congregation — Somalo and three randomly chosen cardinals — will assist in the daily workings of the Vatican.

The coming conclave could be radically different than the one that ended with the election of Karol Wojtyla as pope in 1978. John Paul promulgated the “Universi Dominici Gregis,” or “Shepherd of the Lord’s Whole Flock,” in 1996, changing the long-standing rules of the conclave. One result is that after 30 ballots, or 12 days of voting, only a simple majority is required to elect a new pope. Until that point, a two-thirds majority is required. Only 117 cardinals — those who are under the age of 80 — are eligible to vote in the conclave, although all are encouraged to add their wisdom to the selection process.

On the first morning of conclave, cardinals will take part in a Eucharistic celebration and Mass. That afternoon, the cardinals will assemble in the Pauline Chapel and sing a Latin hymn, “Veni Creator,” which seeks guidance from the Holy Spirit, before proceeding to the Sistine Chapel to begin voting.

Beneath Michelangelo’s famous painting, “The Last Judgment,” the electors will recite an oath pledging loyalty to the next pope and promising never to reveal what occurs in the chamber. A meditation on the qualities needed for the next pope and the challenges ahead for the church is offered. Then aides and others who have accompanied the cardinals into the chapel are asked to leave with a call of “extra omnes’ ”— Latin for “all out.”

The lengthy election process is carried out, with windows closed and curtains drawn, in three phases. Randomly chosen cardinals distribute two ballots with the words “Eligo in Summum Pontificem,” “I elect as supreme pontiff,” and a space to record the vote. Cardinals submit their votes by placing them on a ceremonial plate, sliding the plate into a receptacle and bowing to the altar. If a new pope is not elected in the first round of voting, the cardinals reconvene the following day. Two ballots will be cast in the morning and two more in the afternoon. After three days of unsuccessful votes, the cardinals retire for a day of rest and reflection. Voting then continues in the same manner, with a day of rest taken after every seven unsuccessful ballots.

After each vote, the ballots are read aloud and counted three times. They are then strung together with thread and burned. If the election is unsuccessful, chemicals are added to turn the smoke black. When the cardinals agree on the next pope, the ballots are burned to create white smoke that rises over St. Peter’s Square.

After the pope-elect accepts the results, the dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, will ask him what name he wishes to be called. The new pope will then be led to the “room of tears” to don the papal vestments. Cardinals will then pay homage to the new pope inside the Sistine Chapel. Historically, large crowds have gathered in St. Peter’s Square, awaiting the moment when the Cardinal Dean will appear on the main balcony of the Vatican to declare “Habemus Papam” — “We have a pope.”

The new Pontiff will then deliver his first Urbi et Orbi, or apostolic blessing, to the world. After a formal inauguration ceremony, the new “Servant of the Servants of God” will begin to leave his mark on 1 billion Catholics and the world.

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