The Papal Conclave

This article originally appeared in the parish bulletin on March 3, 2013

Without a doubt, this year the character of Lent is quite unusual in that most Catholics and a large number of other interested parties are wondering about the process of choosing a new pope. As of February 28 the See (seat of authority) of St. Peter has fallen vacant. Perhaps by the time you read this the date of the beginning of the conclave will have been made public. On whatever that day will be, the members of the College of Cardinals who are younger than 80 years old will enter the conclave to elect a new Bishop of Rome. The latest news is that on Friday, February 22 Pope Benedict issued a document named Normas Nonnullas that will allow the cardinal-electors, if they are all present and a majority agree, to waive the 15-day waiting period after a pontificate ends and start the conclave early. On Tuesday, February 26 it was announced that in retirement the Holy Father will be known as “His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope-Emeritus,” and that he will continue to wear white.

A very logical question to ask at this point is, “What is a cardinal?”  A cardinal is a man who is the honorary pastor of one of the parishes of the Diocese of Rome. Their most important duty as cardinals is to travel to the Vatican upon the death of a pope and elect a new pope. Many centuries ago, the parish priests of Rome served as cardinals. Today, diocesan priests serve as the pastors of Roman parishes, while the archbishops of important archdioceses around the world, or archbishops who lead certain offices of the Church in Vatican City, are named the “titular pastors” (honorary pastors) of those Roman parishes. (Actually, the Diocese of Rome has 338 parishes, according to its own website, but there can be a maximum of only 120 cardinals. There are apparently 123 parishes that could have cardinals as titular pastors, but how those are determined I do not know.) In the United States, the Archdioceses of Baltimore, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Galveston-Houston are normally the cities whose archbishops are also named cardinals. In Church parlance, they are “cardinalatial sees” (a term so specialized that I wonder if it is perhaps just made up!). Three of those cities (Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles) are headed by archbishops who are not cardinals at present, since the retired archbishops are cardinals who are under age 80 and can vote in a conclave. Usually an archbishop of one of those important cities can expect to wait until his predecessor is over 80 years old before he himself would be named a cardinal. Another fact about archdioceses that are important enough to be headed by a cardinal: changing demographics sometimes cause a city to lose that high honor. Years ago, the archbishops of St. Louis and Detroit would become cardinals, but apparently not any more. Conversely, Galveston-Houston recently made a rapid rise: it was headed by bishops for more than 150 years, and then beginning in 2004 by an archbishop, and then beginning in 2007 by a cardinal.

By the time this bulletin is published, Pope Benedict’s renunciation of the papacy will already have taken effect. I suspect that on Friday a General Congregation, made up of those cardinals who have already arrived in Rome, would have begun to make decisions about the date of the conclave, which now can begin earlier than the mid-March date that would have been necessary until the recent modification. During the Sede Vacante (the vacancy of the Holy See), the Catholic Church will be administered by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., whose title is Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church. Cardinal Bertone, a Salesian, has been the Vatican Secretary of State since 2006, and Pope Benedict gave him the additional responsibility of camerlengo (or chamberlain) in 2007. It might be the case that the responsibilities of the camerlengo only are felt during a vacancy, but at that time they are many.

Once the conclave begins, the cardinals are locked in (conclave means “with a key”), or at least they used to be locked in. A kind of indoor tent city used to be set up for the cardinals, who were not permitted to leave the area of the Sistine Chapel. John Paul II made matters much more comfortable for the cardinals when he rewrote the rules about the election of a pope. Now the balloting takes place in the Sistine Chapel, but the cardinals are allowed to leave the Chapel to sleep in St. Martha’s Residence on the other side of St. Peter’s Basilica. There are 117 cardinals under 80 and who are thus eligible to enter the conclave. One of them, from Indonesia, will not be attending because his eyesight is failing. As you have perhaps heard, the only cardinal-elector from Great Britain – a Scotsman – has resigned amid a scandal and will not attend the conclave. That leaves 115 cardinal-electors. A two-thirds majority is needed to elect a pope, and there will be one ballot taken on the first day, and two each day after that.  There are far more detailed rules, but what is most important is that the cardinal-electors open themselves to the Holy Spirit to guide them as they choose another successor of St. Peter.  Let us, too, call upon the Holy Spirit to guide the cardinals. We ought to remember that this is not a process of angling for a political position, but is instead a process of determining God’s choice for the servant-leader of his people. Soon we will hear these words: Annnutio vobis gaudium magnum.  Habemas papam! I announce to you a great joy.  We have a Pope!

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