What happens on the first day of the conclave?
On the morning the conclave begins (Monday, April 18), the cardinal electors celebrate Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at 10 a.m. Rome time. In the afternoon they gather in the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace and solemnly process to the Sistine Chapel at 4:30 p.m. The cardinals take an oath to observe the rules laid down in Universi Dominici Gregis, especially those enjoining secrecy. They also swear not to support interference in the election by any secular authorities or "any group of people or individuals who might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman pontiff." Finally, the electors swear that whoever is elected will carry out the "munus Petrinum of pastor of the universal church" and will "affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See." Another section of the constitution says that the new pope is not bound by any oaths or promises made prior to his election.
After the oath is taken, everyone not connected with the conclave is ordered out with the Latin words "Extra omnes," "Everybody out!" The Sistine Chapel and the Domus Sanctae Marthae are then closed to unauthorized persons by the camerlengo. Outside the conclave, the camerlengo is assisted by the sostituto of the Secretariat of State, who directs Vatican personnel to protect the integrity and security of the conclave.
After everyone else leaves, an ecclesiastic chosen earlier by the college of cardinals gives a meditation "concerning the grave duty incumbent on them and thus on the need to act with right intention for the good of the universal church, solum Deum prae oculis habentes [having only God before your eyes]." When he finishes, he leaves the Sistine Chapel with the master of papal liturgical ceremony so that only the cardinal electors remain. The time in the chapel is for prayer and voting in silence, not campaign speeches. Negotiations and arguments are to take place outside the chapel. If they wish, the cardinals can immediately begin the election process and hold one ballot on the afternoon of the first day. If no one receives the required two-thirds vote in the balloting on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet again the next morning.
How does the balloting take place?
The regulations for balloting are very detailed to eliminate any suspicion of electoral fraud--no hanging chads here. Three "scrutineers" (vote counters) are chosen by lot from the electors, with the least senior cardinal deacon drawing the names. He draws three additional names of cardinals (called infirmarii) who will collect the ballots of any cardinals in the conclave who are too sick to come to the Sistine Chapel. A final three names are drawn by lot to act as revisers, who review the work done by the scrutineers. Each morning and afternoon, new scrutineers, infirmarii and revisers are chosen by lot.
The electors use rectangular cards as ballots with "Eligo in summum pontificem" (I elect as supreme pontiff) printed at the top. When folded down the middle the ballot is only one inch wide. Each cardinal in secret prints or writes the name of his choice on the ballot in a way that disguises his handwriting. One at a time, in order of precedence, the cardinals approach the altar with their folded ballot held up so that it can be seen. On the altar there is a receptacle (traditionally a large chalice) covered by a small plate (paten). After kneeling in prayer for a short time, the cardinal rises and swears, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." He then places the ballot on the plate. Finally he picks up the plate and uses it to drop the ballot into the receptacle. The use of the plate makes it difficult for a cardinal to drop two ballots into the chalice.
The first scrutineer uses the plate as a cover when shaking the receptacle to mix the ballots. The last scrutineer counts the ballots before they are unfolded. If the number of ballots does not correspond to the number of electors, the ballots are burned without being counted and another vote is immediately taken. If the number of ballots does match the number of electors, the scrutineers, who are sitting at a table in front of the altar, begin counting the votes.
The first scrutineer unfolds the ballot, notes the name on a piece of paper and passes the ballot to the second scrutineer. He notes the name and passes the ballot to the third scrutineer, who reads it aloud for all the cardinals to hear. If there are two names on a single ballot, the ballot is not counted. The last scrutineer pierces each ballot with a threaded needle through the word "Eligo" and places it on the thread. After all the ballots have been read, the ends of the thread are tied together and the ballots thus joined are placed in an empty receptacle. The scrutineers then add up the totals for each candidate. Finally, the three revisers check both the ballots and the notes of the scrutineers to make sure that they performed their task faithfully and exactly.
To be elected, two thirds of the votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present. Should it be impossible to divide the number of cardinals present into three equal parts, for the validity of the election one additional vote is required. Thus if all the current 117 cardinal electors are present, 78 votes would be required to elect a new pope.
The ballots and notes (including those made by any cardinal) are then burned unless another vote is to take place immediately. The ballots are burned by the scrutineers with the assistance of the secretary of the conclave and the master of ceremonies, who adds special chemicals to make the smoke white or black. Since 1903, white smoke has signaled the election of a pope; black smoke signals an inconclusive vote. The only written record of the voting permitted is a document prepared by the camerlengo and approved by the three cardinal assistants, which is prepared at the end of the election and gives the results of each session. This document is given to the new pope and then placed in the archives in a sealed envelope that may be opened by no one unless the pope gives permission.
How long can the conclave last?
The conclave lasts until a new pope is elected. The last conclave to go more than five days was in 1831: it lasted 54 days. In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year-and-a-half before the election of Innocent IV and for three-and-a-half years before the installation of Gregory X. Since then 29 conclaves have lasted a month or more. Often wars or civil disturbances in Rome caused these lengthy interregnums. Sometimes delays were caused by the cardinals themselves, who enjoyed the power and financial rewards of running the papacy without a pope. These abuses led to rules governing an interregnum and requiring the speedy calling of a conclave.
What happens after the first day?
If no one receives the required two-thirds of the votes in the balloting on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet again the next morning. If they are again unsuccessful, they immediately vote again. From then on, there can be two votes in the morning and two in the afternoon. Each morning and afternoon, new scrutineers, infirmarii and revisers are chosen by lot. If a second vote takes place, the materials from two votes are burned at the same time. Thus twice a day there will be black smoke from the stove until a pope is elected.
The tradition of white smoke for an election and black smoke for an inconclusive ballot only dates from the beginning of the 20th century. After the death of John Paul II, the cardinals decided to add a new tradition--bells will also be rung to signal the election of the new pope.
If after three days the cardinals have still not elected anyone, the voting sessions can be suspended for one day for prayer and discussion among the electors. During this intermission, a brief spiritual exhortation is given by the senior cardinal deacon. Then another seven votes take place, followed by a suspension and an exhortation by the senior cardinal priest. Another seven votes take place, followed by a suspension and an exhortation by the senior cardinal bishop. Voting is then resumed for another seven ballots.
If no candidate receives a two-thirds vote after this balloting, the camerlengo invites the electors to express an opinion about the manner of proceeding. It is at this point that the dramatic changes occur introduced by John Paul II that allow an absolute majority (more than half) of the electors to waive the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote. Thus, an absolute majority of the electors can decide to elect the pope by an absolute majority. They can also decide to force a choice between the two candidates who in the preceding ballot received the greatest number of votes. In this second case also only an absolute majority is required.
As a consequence, if an absolute majority of the electors favored a candidate in the first ballot of the first day of the conclave, in theory they could hold firm for about 12 days through about 30 votes until they could change the rules and elect their candidate. In the past, the two-thirds requirement was an incentive for the electors to compromise or move to another candidate. Now a majority does not have to compromise. It can hold tight, while the minority is pressed to give in since everyone knows that eventually the majority will prevail. In such a case, the minority would undoubtedly give in rather than scandalize the faithful and upset the man who inevitably would become pope.
John Paul II did not explain in Universi Dominici Gregis why he made this change. Perhaps he feared a long conclave. By giving the cardinals more comfortable quarters, he reduced the discomfort factor that discouraged long conclaves. Allowing the cardinals to elect a pope with an absolute majority reduces the likelihood of a conclave going on for months. On the other hand, allowing an absolute majority to elect a pope after about 12 days increases the likelihood of a conclave lasting that long.
Who can be elected?
In theory, any man can be elected who is willing to be baptized and ordained a priest and bishop. He does not have to be at the conclave. The last noncardinal elected was Urban VI (1378). The last cardinal to be elected pope who was a priest but not a bishop was Gregory XVI (1831). Callistus III (Affonso Borgia 1455) was the last person to be elected who was not a priest. Most likely a cardinal elector will be elected, all of whom today are bishops.
What happens after the election?
The cardinal dean asks the man, "Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?" Rarely does anyone say no. When offered the papacy at the conclave in Viterbo in 1271, St. Philip Benizi fled and hid until another candidate was chosen. Likewise St. Charles Borromeo, one of the few cardinals to be canonized, turned down the papacy. When Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, the 76-year-old archbishop of Milan, began receiving votes during the conclave in October 1978, he made it clear that he would refuse the papacy if elected. If the man says yes, then he becomes pope immediately if he is already a bishop. The rest is simply ceremony. If he is not already a bishop, he is to be ordained one immediately by the cardinal dean and becomes pope as soon as this has been done. The dean in ancient times was the bishop of Ostia, a nearby town.
He is then asked by what name he wants to be called. The first pope to change his name was John II in 533. His given name, Mercury, was considered inappropriate since it was the name of a pagan god. Another pope in 983 took the name John XIV because his given name was Peter. Reverence for the first pope precluded his becoming Peter II. At the end of the first millennium a couple of non-Italian popes changed their names to ones that the Romans could more easily pronounce. The custom of changing one's name became common around the year 1009. The last pope to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in 1555.
The cardinals then approach the new pope and make an act of homage and obedience. A prayer of thanksgiving is then said, and the senior cardinal deacon informs the people in St. Peters Square that the election has taken place and announces the name of the new pope. The pope then may speak to the crowd and grant his first solemn blessing "urbi et orbi," to the city and the world. John Paul I and John Paul II prolonged the conclave until the following morning so that they could meet and dine with the cardinals.
John Paul II had audiences for diplomats and the press in the week after his election. The inauguration mass took place on Oct. 22, six days after the election (in the past this would have involved crowning the pope with the papal tiara, but since John Paul I involves the receiving of the pallium). Later still he took possession of his cathedral, St. John Lateran.