The Conclave Revealed. Rules, Rituals, and Snubs for the Papal Election

Conclave: A room locked with a key

is the English translation of the Latin word. That’s a big part of understanding the complicated, revered, and scrutinized papal election process. The most basic explanation of the conclave process is that they lock 115 Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel until they agree on one papal candidate by 2/3rds vote or greater. However the time for voting comes after a great number of other rituals.

Vatican Pope

What happens when the last pope decides to leave or dies?

Basically that means it’s time for everyone to get their affairs in order, drop everything, and come to The Vatican. But here are some of the larger events that occur.

  • The Chamberlain takes control and all senior members of government resign. 
  • The day after Pope Benedict resigned, the dean of the College of Cardinals informed all Cardinals that the papacy is vacant and to come to rome.
  • All electors discuss challenges facing the church and the qualities desired in a new pope.
  • Old Pope’s fisherman’s ring is destroyed, a very old tradition.
  • The Cardinals set a voting date.

The Conclave

The voting itself proves to be more difficult than all of the preparation. Here is a basic timeline of events for the conclave.

  • The Cardinals take part in a eucharist in the morning.
  • In the afternoon, they assemble in Pauline Chapel.
  • The Cardinals chant Veni Creator as they walk to the Sistine Chapel to be locked in.
  • The area is cleared prior to their arrival. The area is swept for bugs, cameras, even Michelangelo’s masterpiece must “remain an absolutely enclosed area until the conclusion of the election, so that total secrecy may be ensured with regard to everything said or done there in any way pertaining, directly or indirectly, to the election of the supreme pontiff” (Universi Dominici Gregis).
  • Ballots are distributed and put into the box in a very particular way which I will provide a link for details at the bottom of this post.
  • The vote is counted and ballots redistributed until one candidate has 2/3rds of the vote.

If it doesn’t work

If a new pope is not chosen within 3 days of repeating this process, a day off for prayer and discussion is permitted. After another 7 failed ballots there is a pause again. After this pause another 7 ballots are offered. If there is still not a clear candidate all cardinals will vote on only the top two contenders and two thirds of the vote is still necessary to win.

Bells and Smoke Signals

The smoke signals are a source of confusion and frustration for the media and foreigners every time there is a papal election. For every failed ballot, black smoke is released from a chimney that is part of the large Chapel with the help of some chemicals. Once they have selected a pope, someone will send out white smoke from the same chimney. When Pope Benedict was chosen, the smoke was grey when it was intended to be white. No one was sure about the results for several hours.

The final ritual before the pope is announced and greets the public in the Vatican City center is the ringing of the 9th largest bell in the world.

Conclave Snubs

The winner for Conclave Snub of this papal election is Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine

To be qualified to vote for the new pope, cardinals cannot have reached their 80th birthday by the day of resignation or death of the last pope. Cardinal Husar turned 80 years old two days before Pope Benedict gave up the seat. That’s just bad luck.

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One response to “The Conclave Revealed. Rules, Rituals, and Snubs for the Papal Election

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