Action Alert!
Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Catholic World News News Feature

Toward the conclave #6: the voting procedure April 11, 2005

How is a papal election conducted?

The process of a conclave is rich in tradition, but the steps to be followed are also carefully spelled out in detail, in the apostolic constitution Universi Dominic Gregis, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in February 1996.

Other Stories in this Series
This is the 6th in a series of articles looking forward to the conclave that will choose the 265th Roman Pontiff. Readers might also be interested in:

· Toward the conclave #1: the office of camerlengo
· Toward the conclave #2: the cardinals' daily congregations
· Toward the conclave #3: announcing the new Pope
· Toward the conclave #4: how long will the conclave last?
· Toward the conclave #5: a brief history of conclaves

On the day fixed for the opening of the conclave-- in this case Monday, April 18-- the cardinals will assemble in the morning for a Mass pro eligendo summo Pontifice in St. Peter's Basilica. That afternoon they will again don their liturgical vestments and form a procession, arranged by their orders within the College of Cardinals: the cardinal-bishops, cardinal-priests, and cardinal-deacons. (See below for a brief explanation of these designations.) They will then file into the Sistine Chapel, singing the Veni Creator as they go.

In this procession, the cardinal-electors will be accompanied by a few Vatican officials: the secretary of the College of Cardinals (who is also the secretary of the Congregation for Bishops), Archbishop Francesco Monterisi; the master of pontifical liturgy, Bishop Piero Marini; and two other pontifical aides. No one other than a cardinal-elector can be admitted within the specific authorization of the camerlengo.

Once they have reached the Sistine Chapel, the dean of the College of Cardinals willl read aloud the oath to which every cardinal-elector must swear. In this oath each cardinal must vow that he will guard the absolute secrecy of the election process, that he will not be guided in his choice by any outside power or external interference, and that if elected he will faithfully execute his duties as the pastor of the universal Church. The cardinals assent to that oath as a group; then each individual elector comes forward in turn to take the oath, with his hand on the Gospel.

At this point the pontifical aides distribute to each cardinal-elector the paper ballots marked: Eligo in summum Pontificen… followed by a space in which they are to write the name of the man they choose for the papacy.

Finally, before the voting begins, one prominent cleric chosen by the cardinals in their congregation delivers a meditation, emphasizing the gravity of the choice they are about to undertake. At their congregation meeting on April the cardinals chose the Czech Jesuit, Cardinal Thomas Spidlik-- who at 85 is too old to participate in the conclave-- to deliver this address. When he has concluded, Cardinal Spidlik will leave, along with Bishop Marini; the cardinal-electors will then be alone in the Sistine Chapel.

Once the doors of the chapel are closed and locked (the area will already have been swept carefully for electronic eavesdropping devices), the cardinals will draw lots to choose nine clerks: 3 tellers to count the votes, 3 infirmarii to collect ballots from any cardinals who may be sick and unable to vote in person, and 3 others to double-check the ballots and certify the accuracy of the tellers' count. These last 3 are stationed near the altar of the Sistine Chapel, underneath Michelangelo's famous fresco of the Last Judgment.

When the time for voting arrives, each cardinal writes the name of his choice. (The instructions in constitution Universi Dominic Gregis stipulate that he must write with his own hand, but should do his best to disguise his handwriting.) Each cardinal then folds his ballot and carries it forward to the altar and deposits it in a collection box. As he approaches the altar, the elector swears aloud that he has chosen the man who, in his view, should be elected Pope. Then, bowing to the altar, he withdraws.

In casting their ballots, the cardinals come forward by order of precedence within the College of Cardinals. An exception to that rule could be made if some cardinal-electors are confined to their rooms by illness; in that case the infirmarii cast their ballots first, then go to the rooms of the sick prelates with a locked box to collect their ballots. When they return, the box is unlocked by the tellers, and the ballot added to the main collection box. When all the electors have voted, one of the tellers shakes the ballot-box several times to mix the ballots. Another counts the votes, unfolding each ballot in view of the other cardinals. The three tellers, seated in front of the altar, then each examine each ballot; the last of these three calls out the name that has been written on it. The clerks also tally each vote. As they do so, they perforate the ballots with a needle and thread, and form them into a single strand. When they are finished they deliver a report-- duly noted on a separate sheet of paper-- and the second set of tellers proceeds to double-check their work.

After a single ballot on the first day of the conclave, the cardinals will meet twice a day, in the morning and evening, to vote, with two ballots taken on each occasion. If these votes are inconclusive, no results are announced. But after each session the votes-- now collected on threads-- are burned. (The secretary of the College of Cardinals is recalled to the conclave to help with this task.) To indicate that no Pope has been chosen, the votes are burned with a chemical added to produce reliably dark smoke, which will be seen by observers as it issues from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. When a Pope is chosen, other chemicals will be used to produce white smoke.

(This custom of using dark and white smoke the results of the vote dates back to the 11th century, when it was introduced to help the faithful of Rome feel more actively involved in the process of choosing the Pontiff. Before that time, the people had been actively involved in the voting themselves. The use of chemical to color the smoke is a recent innovation, made in the 20th century when the older technique of burning ballots with damp straw to produce dark smoke proved unreliable.)

A candidate is declared victorious when two-thirds of the cardinal-electors endorse him. (If the number of cardinal-electors is not evenly divisible by 3, the number of votes required for election is rounded upwards.) Thus with 115 cardinals expected to enter the conclave on April 18, the winning candidate will need 77 votes.

In Universi Dominic Gregis, Pope John Paul II introduced an important new factor into the voting process. He decreed that after 3 days of inconclusive voting, the cardinals should pause for a day of prayer and open exchange of ideas. They then resume voting, for 7 ballots if necessary, before pausing once again for prayer and open discussion. During each such pause, one cardinal is appointed to deliver an exhortation to his colleagues: first the senior cardinal-deacon, then the senior cardinal-priest, and finally the senior cardinal-bishop. If the voting is still inconclusive after three such pauses and the following 7 ballots, the camerlengo is to consult the cardinals on how they wish to proceed.

At this point-- nearly a month after the death of the previous Pope-- the cardinals would have the options of selecting a new Pontiff by a simple majority, or conducting a run-off election between the leading candidates in recent ballots. Universi Dominic Gregis stipulates that the new Pope must, in any case, receive an absolute majority of the ballots. When the vote is conclusive, and a new Roman Pontiff is selected, the junior cardinal-deacon calls the secretary of the College of Cardinals and the master of pontifical liturgies, ordering them to return to the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger, formally asks the winner if he will accept his selection to serve as Pope. A positive response is a signal for the tellers to burn the ballots that will produce the white smoke.

As that white smoke rises, drawing a crowd into St. Peter's Square, the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel take turns paying homage and pledging fealty to the latest successor to St. Peter. The newly elected Bishop of Rome is hurried into an anteroom-- known traditionally, for obvious reasons, as "the weeping room," where he is clothed in the distinctive white vestments of the Pope. (The tailor prepares several sets of vestments, in various sizes, in advance; later he will make alterations to fit the new Pope. A Roman firm owned by the Gammarelli family has made vestments for Popes for several generations.)

Then at last the ranking cardinal-deacon, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, makes his appearance on the balcony of the Vatican basilica to make the dramatic announcement, Habemus Papam! and the new Pontiff appears to give his apostolic blessing Urbi et Orbi for the first time.

The "orders" of cardinals

By tradition the cardinals of the Catholic Church represent the clergy of Rome-- who, until the 11th century, chose the Bishop of Rome. The Latin term cardo ("pivot" or "hinge") was given to the clerics of Rome who, serving in the major parishes of the diocese, were seen as pivotal to the life of the Church in that city. Thus the clerics of Rome where the cardinal-priests and cardinal-deacons. In the 8th century the bishops of the seven diocese surrounding Rome were allowed to join in the electoral process; they became the cardinal-bishops.

Since 1059, only cardinals have been involved in the election of the new Pope. But in preservation of the ancient tradition, when a prelate is elevated to the College of Cardinals, he is also assigned to a titular parish in Rome, or to one of the 7 surrounding dioceses. The cardinal-bishops are appointed by the Pope from among the senior members of the College of Cardinals. Otherwise, the distinctions between the different "orders" of cardinals have only ceremonial significance today.