History / Religion

Conclave – Cum Clave, With a Key

Within the next days the conclave, the election of the 266th pope will begin. 115 cardinals are allowed the choose the next Holy Father from their midst. In normal cases, that means after the death of a pope, there have to be at least fifteen days between the start of the Sede Vacante (The empty Seat) and the beginning of the conclave. This is an old tradition, because centuries ago the cardinals often had to come a long and dangerous way to Rome by horseback or waggon. But today, with modern means of travel, most of the cardinals manage to arrive in Rome after five days. This time the Sede Vacante started at the 28th of February at 8 pm.

Because of the novel situation, Benedict XVI had changed the rules of the conclave and made it possible to start it before the fifteen days are over to speed up the election process. Easter is ahead, the most important feast in Christianity and the prospect of a Sede Vacante during the festivities is not a good one. But who leads the State during the absence of the pope? Vatican State is now run by the College of the Cardinals and the daily routine by the Camerlengo, the administrator of the property and revenues of the Holy See, who is assisted by three cardinals, changing every three days by fortune. The coat of arms also changed, it shows now the two crossed keys of Saint Peter and above, instead of the tiara a Padiglione, some kind of baldachine, in red-golden stripes. Below that the coat of arms of the Camerlengo is shown.

The officiating Camerlengo is at the moment Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a Vatican diplomat. He is hence head of Vatican State.

The conclave exists since 1274, scheduled during the 2nd Council of Lyon with the decretal Ubi periculum maius. After the death of a pope the cardinals had to be summoned to the place where he had died. Now it is always Rome, because here lies the residence of the pope. There they will be locked up in an appropriate room, in the past under increasing limitation, especially in subsistence. Until 1870 it was held in the Quirinal Palace, since then the Sistine Chapel is the place of choice. Here the cardinals even used to live, but now the guest house Domus Sanctae Marthae serves for this purpose. Nonetheless the cardinals are cut off from the outside.

Though, the reigning pope can influence the election of his successor by the nomination of cardinals during his reign. Benedict XVI has named 74 cardinals who are allowed to vote, so that there are 41 left from the reign of John Paul II. The majority of the 115 Cardinals is obvious: 61 are european, 28 of them alone from Italy. 19 are from Latin America, a stronghold of the conservative catholic church, 14 from Anglo America, 12 from Asia and Australia and finally 11 from Africa.

As the cardinals have decided at 8th of March, the Conclave starts at the 12th. So they made use of the changed rules, starting the election only thirteen days after the retirement of Benedict XVI. By then, the cardinals have concluded their pre-discussions, which are held to shorten the conclave itself. Because nobody is interested in an event like 1241 when the last pope Gregory IX had died and the cardinals could not aggree on a successor. Then the roman senator and friend of Franciscus of Assisi, Matteo Rosso Orsini imprisoned the cardinals in the Septizodium, an old ruin on the mount Palatin in Rome, to force them to reach a conclusion. After 60 days and the death of one of the cardinals due to the dire circumstances they decided on Celestine IV. But he died after 17 days, also weakend by the exhausting conclave, and even before his consecration. This was the beginning of a two year Sede Vacante; the next pope, Innocent IV, was elected in 1243.

The second overlong Sede Vacante took place only a few years after the first. For three years the world remained without a pope after the death of Clement IV, who died in 1268 and the election of Gregory X in 1271. After two years, the holy Bonaventura, a scholastic and leader of the Franciscan Order, advised that something has to be done and drastic steps were taken: The palace of the pope, where the cardinals were deliberating on the next pope was bolt up thoroughly and the roof was removed. The cardinals received only bread and water, but nonetheless they they endured, in the end achieved an easing of the circumstances and discussed for another year. Then, finally they decided on Tebaldo Visconti, who wasn’t even a priest.

Three more horrific Sede Vacante followed: 1292-1294 (Nicolaus IV – Celestine V), 1314-1316 (Clement V – John XXII) and 1415-1417 (John XXIII – Martin V).

But why is it so difficult to elect a pope? First of all, a two third majority is requested. Until 2007 it was possible, if 33 ballots remained without a result, that the majority could (but doesn’t had to) be lowered to an absolute. But now, after the correction of the rules of the conclave by Benedict XVI, even then a two third majoyrity is requested. Also, a run-off ballott is not allowed any more. Secondly – and that is connected to point one – like at every “normal” election there are factions formed by nations, conservative or liberal attitudes or even likes and dislikes, which can elongate the conclave.

After a successful vote, the to-be pope will be asked with the words “Acceptasne electionem de te canocice factam in Summum Pontificem?” if he accepts the vote. After his confirmation he has to choose the name (“Quonomine vis vocari?”). Normally this will be asked by the Dean of the College of the Cardinals. If he is not available (because he has been elected pope like in 2005) the Sub-Dean has to ask the question. This time it iss the oldest of the Cardinal Bishops turn, because the Dean as well as the Subdean are too old to participate at the conclave.

The first sign of a successful vote is the white fume which will rise from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and the ringing of the bells of St Peter.

The conclave ends, when the Cardinal Protodeacon anounces to the waiting crowd:

„Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum;
„I announce to you a great joy;
Habemus Papam:
We have a pope:
Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,
The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord,
Dominum [forename],
Lord [forename],
Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem [surename],
Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church [surename],
qui sibi nomen imposuit [papal name].“
who takes to himself the name [papal name].“

The first act of and as the new Pope is always the apostolical blessing Urbi et Orbi (To the City and the World).

Before John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were from Poland and Germany, since 1523 all popes all have from Italy. Recently, there have been calls for a pope from South America or Africa, the continents with the most growing number of believers. But since these are the most conservative factions this could also be a step more away from the renewal and modernisation of the church.

Katja Skokow



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