Electing a new Pope: The Conclave and all that

Prof. George Menachery


Many Popes have altered the rules for the conduct of the gathering of the cardinals called the Conclave (con = with, clavis = key – that is, behind locked doors) which elects the new Pope. Pope John Paul II has added {Universi Dominici Gregis, Shepherd of the Lord's Whole Flock - 1996) to the many significant changes made by Pope Paul VI (1967, 1970, 1975). Of these changes in procedure made by John Paul II one will have very far reaching consequences. According to Pope Paul VI’s rules the winning candidate had to get two-thirds plus one votes of the number of cardinals present and voting.

Simple Majority may be sufficient  in 2005 Conclave

In John Paul’s rules the necessary number for election is only two- thirds (only if the total is not divisible by three it must be two-thirds plus one); but what is to the point: after 30 elections if still there is a deadlock and no one has obtained the necessary two thirds majority then the cardinals could decide to elect the person who secures a simple majority of fifty percent plus one. This means that if a cardinal gets 50% plus one at the beginning his supporters could simply sit out and wait for the 30th election to be over, when he could be elected with the same number of votes that he polled at the commencement of the election. The very much more comfortable beds and rooms which will be made available to the cardinals this time could make such a waiting for many days feasible, which could not have been imagined in the previous elections where the cardinals were housed in hallways and corridors on folding cots with inadequate conveniences. In fact when I visited the conclave area in and adjoining the Sistine Chapel in 1978 October, two days before the beginning of the last Conclave, as a specially selected representative of the press,  with 59 other fellow journalists (out of a total of 1300 accredited media representatives, this time I am told there might be more than 4000) we found the accommodation provided for the cardinals much less satisfactory even than the amenities provided by the cheapest pensione. This time over, although the election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals will live in the five-story Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican residence with 105 two-room suites and 26 single rooms, some thousand odd feet from the Apostolic Palace, built in 1996. The rooms, as in previous Conclaves,  will be allotted by lot. Last time the Cardinal from Krakow Karol Wojtyla got room number 91 in the Conclave area. As a result of the present change in rules it is almost certain that a Cardinal with Pope John Paul II’s views is almost sure to be elected since out of the 117 Cardinals under 80 eligible to vote 114 have been elevated to the post by John Paul II himself, most of whom reportedly with the same outlook as Pope John Paul II himself. It is my personal opinion that this part of the regulation will have much opposition in the coming days and most probably the next Pope will considerably dilute this clause so as to avoid hardline stances, because as it is there is not much meaning for the two-thirds stipulation. Under these circumstances chances of Cardinals who have received much exposure during the recent papacy and the recent ceremonies and who also have contacts and knowledge of languages on their side will be considerable.

Secret, Top Secret

Each and every step in the present system of electing the Pope has developed from differing experiences, situations, and circumstances down the centuries… and to study these developments is most interesting and quite rewarding.

In 1271 the 17 Cardinals started the election at Viterbo, 40 miles from Rome. On account of various external pressures they could not agree on a Pope for two years and a half. Finally the angry people intervened. They locked in the Cardinals and even closed all holes in the walls with bricks. They even punished the reluctant electors by taking off the roof of the building, subjecting the Cardinals to the wrath of nature. And they were even starved.

Finally the Cardinals arrived at a compromise: they elected a six member committee from among themselves to take a decision for them. Thus was elected blessed Gregory X. Naturally he was forced to begin the process of today’s secret conclave because of this experience. 700 years ago at Lyons were established the first Conclave rules. Many of the Popes, including John Paul II have made changes in these rules “What leads me to take this step is awareness of the Church's changed situation today and the need to take into consideration the general revision of Canon Law which took place… While keeping in mind present-day requirements, I have been careful, in formulating the new discipline, not to depart in substance from the wise and venerable tradition already established” –JPII. John Paul II has forbidden the 2005 Conclave to elect a Pope by the Compromise or Committee method.

Fortunately no 20th century papal election had lasted more than a week. Pius X was elected in a day. To elect Pope John XXIII the 51 Cardinals of his day took only three days.  111 Cardinals coming from the five continents found their leader in the Pope of the eternal smile John Paul I in a single day. John Paul II himself was elected in the seventh poll on the third day of the Conclave.

Conclaves and the Sistine Chapel

It was originally permitted to have the election anywhere. Elections have taken place in many different towns of France and Italy. It was Pope Clement the VII of the Medici family – the illegal son of a Medici – who ordered that all papal elections must take place in Rome. Now the elections must take place in the Vatican only. Though there was no objection to having the election anywhere in the Vatican the Cardinals have traditionally preferred the Sistine Chapel for the election. And they could not be blamed for that. If asked which is the most beautiful man-made space in the world many art lovers would not hesitate to reply “The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace”. Every square inch of this chapel – whether it is the ceiling, the walls, the floor…of this 136”x 48”x 86” structure depicts the works of the best known renaissance artists – Perugino, Ghirlandhao,..and of course Michelangelo.

The great warrior Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel with stars and traditional decorations. “Painting is not my trade”, said Michelangelo. “I am a sculptor. You may give this job to Raphael,” he said to the Pope. Finally he agreed to do the job so that he could get the commission to sculpt the marble tomb of the Pontiff. Michelangelo believed sculpture much superior to painting, and had many arguments with Da Vinci on the matter. Today the ceiling, some 86 feet above ground, is filled with the incomparable 5600 sq. ft. series called the Genesis or the Creation. After many years the altarpiece of the chapel, 2000 sq. ft., was also painted by Michelangelo himself – The Last Judgment.  These four hundred years and more the Last Judgment has been attracting millions of art lovers every year from all over the world.

No wonder John Paul II orders the Conclave – the actual election of the Pope to take place under these paintings. “At the same time, in view of the sacredness of the act of election and thus the need for it to be carried out in an appropriate setting where, …and where, on the other, the electors can more easily dispose themselves to accept the interior movements of the Holy Spirit, I decree that the election will continue to take place in the Sistine Chapel, where everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in whose sight each person will one day be judged.”


In the year of the three Popes - 1978 when this writer had an opportunity to examine the secret arrangements of the Conclave the floors of the Sistine and environs had already been paved with timber to level the floor. Thrones for the Cardinals and utensils for the conduct of the election were already in place. Touching all those paraphernalia brought to mind some special features of that most secret of election processes.

Anybody can be Pope, even a layman or in theory at least even a non-Christian. In the first 800 years of Christianity it was the deacons of Rome who became Popes. It was only after that period that a bishop became Pope. However in the last 700 years only Cardinals have been elected to the position, except Gregory the XVI in 1831 who was not yet a bishop when elected. From1523 to October 1978 papacy was the monopoly of Italians, so to say.

 True, Peter was from outside Italy. But of his 264 successors to-date only 59 have come from outside Italy. 15 Greeks, 15 Frenchmen, 6 Germans, 6 Syrians, 3 North Africans, 3 Spaniards, 2 Dalmatians, 2 Goths, 1 Thracian, 1 Englishman, 1 Portuguese, and 1 of Dutch origin – the nationality of another one is not clear – and finally John Paul II, a Polaco.

Sylvester I the first French Pope (999 – 1003) was a great scholar and is thought to have been the model for Dr. Faustus.

Nicolas Breakspeare was the only Englishman to occupy Peter’s throne and he took the name Adrian IV (1154 – 59). Though a second Englishman has also been elected he refused to become Pope.

In 1305 the ongoing conflicts between the imperialists and the republicans split the city states of Italy so that the seat of the Pope had to be shifted outside Italy to Avignon in France. For well nigh  three quarters of a century Avignon remained the seat of corruption and greed  until Pope Gregory XI restored the seat of papacy to Rome.

Both the foreign Popes of the 15th century were members of the notorious Borgia family of Spain. They, Calistus III and his nephew Alexander VI, made the papacy a family affair. Pope Alexander the Sixth made four of his nephews and an illegitimate son Cardinals. The Borgias made poisoning  into a fine art. The attempt of the Borgia father and son to poison a rival misfired when Pope Alexander drank the poisoned drink by mistake and died within a week When one enters the Borgia rooms in the Vatican Palaceone trembles with fear in spite of the Raphael paintings. The person elected from outside Italy before John Paul II was the Dutch Adrian. He had to face the consequences of Martin Luther’s revolt. When Adrian, who had confessed the errors of the Church and had tried to correct them, died there was no one to mourn his death. A floral crown appeared at the door of the Palace Doctor who had failed to save the Pope. Because of that Dutch Curse no one had been elected Pope from outside Italy for 455 years, until 1978.

Although Indian Catholics form only a small portion of the Catholic population of the world some three percent of the electoral college comes from India: Cardinal Vithayathil of Ernakulam, Cardinal Dias of Bombay, and Cardinal Toppo the chairman of the CBCI. Cardinal Lourdsamy and Cardinal Pimenta have no votes as they have crossed 80. The former Nuncio to India Cardinal Caciavillan is another voter.

The Commencement of the Conclave  

Why is it that the election begins only after 15 to 20 days (in Pope Paul’s regulations 15 to 18 days) after the death of the Pope? Blessed Gregory X had ordered the Conclave to start ten days after the death of a Pope. Gregory’s rule was followed without interruption for 648 years. But the rule had to be changed in 1922. American Cardinal O’Connel of  Boston boarded ship to attend the August 1914 Conclave. But when he arrived Benedict XV had already been elected Pope. The depressed Cardinal returned to Boston. In 1922 he again started by ship for the next Conclave. But by the time the Cardinal entered the Conclave white smoke had begun to appear from the thin Sistine pipe.

The disappointed Cardinal got wild with the Cardinal Camerlengo. It was felt by many that the election was being held on the tenth day of the demise of the Pope only to exclude Americans from it and to insult American Catholics. However the newly elected Pope Pius XI decided that thereafter the Conclave should start only 15 days after the death of a Pope, and if necessary the commencement could be postponed by two or three days to enable all Cardinals to arrive. O’Connel who was Cardinal for a long time once again started from Boston for the 1939 Conclave. By this time his hasty departures had become the subject of many jokes and cartoons.  But on this occasion he did reach the Vatican in time, and attended the Conclave from beginning to end. The Pope elected at this Conclave was Pius XII. But by 1939 it was possible for American Cardinals to reach Rome by plane, reaching Rome often much before many other Cardinals.

John Paul II has declared in his regulations for the 2005 Conclave:

“When the funeral rites for the deceased Pope have been celebrated according to the prescribed ritual, and everything necessary for the regular functioning of the election has been prepared, on the appointed day — and thus on the fifteenth day after the death of the Pope or, in conformity with the provisions of No. 37 of the present Constitution, not later than the twentieth — the Cardinal electors shall meet in the Basilica of Saint Peter's in the Vatican, or elsewhere, should circumstances warrant it, in order to take part in a solemn Eucharistic celebration with the Votive Mass Pro Eligendo Papa. This celebration should preferably take place at a suitable hour in the morning.”

 During the occasion of the last Conclave this writer was fortunate enough to be included in the fourteen journalists officially admitted to cover this Votive Mass Pro Eligendo Papa or  Mass for the Election of the Pope, when I was able to take a rare photo of Cardinal Woityla who at the end of that Conclave became Pope John Paul II. 

“From the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, where they will assemble at a suitable hour in the afternoon, the Cardinal electors, in choir dress, and invoking the assistance of the Holy Spirit with the chant of the Veni Creator, will solemnly proceed to the Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, where the election will be held.”

There is also this provision: “However, should any Cardinal electors arrive re integra, that is, before the new Pastor of the Church has been elected, they shall be allowed to take part in the election at the stage which it has reached.”

So much for the wailings of the Cardinal from Boston.

The Election Process

The papal election and election processes are keenly watched and studied by the world; especially by politicians all over the world, irrespective of country, religion, or political ideology.

The various steps and procedures for the election of the new Pope as revised and promulgated by John Paul II in 1996 may be summarized as follows: The cardinals assemble in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope 15-20 days after the death of the reigning Pope. The utensils necessary for voting – pen, paper, ink, ballot papers etc. will be on each Cardinals’s table, distributed by the Masters of Ceremony. Then are selected by drawing of lot, from among all the Cardinal electors, three Scrutineers, three persons charged with collecting the votes of the sick, called for the sake of brevity Infirmarii, and three Revisers. The Cardinals are not to have any contact with the outside world during the duration of the Conclave. They cast their secret ballots, disguising their handwriting, into a chalice with a paten. Though in theory any Roman Catholic can be chosen, only a Cardinal is chosen in practice. Four ballots are conducted each day -- two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Each time, after both votes of a session, the papers are all burned, along with chemicals or other material (wet or dry straw for example) to produce black or white smoke as the case may be. ( Last Conclave I especially noticed the small bundles of straw, two bags of charcoal, a box of firewood, iron sticks, pokers, and spoons for feeding and stirring  the fire, and sticks of chemicals with the labels “White” and “Black”.    If a Pope has not been elected after three days, nobody having secured two-thirds of the votes, according to the new regulations there will be a short break – of a day – for prayer, an exhortation by the top Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal Priest, or Cardinal Bishop, and discussions. There will be similar short breaks after each seven unsuccessful ballots. After thirty ballots if still no one obtains two-thirds majority, the Cardinals will elect the person who gets simple majority, i.e. 50% plus one votes. The election is announced after the newly elected person consents to be Pope and chooses the name by which he will be known. The newly elected pope then emerges and gives his first papal blessing: Urbi et Orbi ("To the City and to the World") to the crowd in the St. Peter’s Square.

Cut off from outside Contacts

John Paul the First died on 25th September 1978. On October 14th the doors of the Conclave were locked and sealed from inside and outside. From the next day onwards voting took place twice in the morning and twice in the evening. However this time it is possible that a single ballot may be taken in the first afternoon itself. The ballots were deposited in the golden chalice kept on the white cloth spread over the papal altar of the Sistine Chapel. Following previous practices tape-recorder, Vidieo, newspaper, cell-phone, TV,  camera – all are forbidden in the Conclave areas. Periodic eclectronic checking will be carried out to ensure this.

In fact there are no candidates in this election, no ‘proposers’ and  ‘seconders’. In one sense it is only the Holy Spirit who proposes, in the   privacy of each voter’s heart.

Election by Acclamation Forbidden

The scene was the funeral ceremonies of Pope Alexander II in the 11th century. Suddenly a voice arose: “Let Hiederbrand be Pope!”  Everybody repeated that demand. Thus all the assembled congregation took Hiederbrand to the church and  enthroned him as Pope Gregory VIII. But the new regulations do not permit election by Acclamation. Or by Compromise. Only election by private individual voting is allowed. In any case election by acclamation and by committee has not been resorted to for many centuries.

Criteria for Election

The age, country, administrative experience, holiness of life, knowledge about the teachings of the Church, scholarship, attitudes, Curia membership, knowledge of languages – especially Italian and Latin, travels…all count in the selection of the proper candidate. Agatho from Sicily was elected when he was a hundred years old, and yet ruled for three years. Among the nine recent Popes only Benedict XV died before 80 – and of course John Paul I. The longest reigning Pope was Pius IX who ruled for 31 years. The second  place goes to John Paul II – 27 years. It is traditionally believed that St. Peter ruled the longest. Stephen II died two days after he was elected Pope. In 1605 Leo XI ruled only for 27 days. The third shortest rule was that of John Paul I – 33 days.

Note: Pl. inform if any other aspect is to be described.There are quite a few.    E- Mail: kunjethy@yahoo.com