Cardinal Tom Williams, reflects on his experience of the 2005 Conclave, which elected the now Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, in light of the upcoming Conclave to elect the 265th successor of St Peter.
However unusual Papal resignation may be there is widespread recognition throughout the Church that Benedict’s decision is a fitting and courageous one, given his nearly 86 years and increasing physical frailty.
The Conclave of 2005 in which I took part, and the Conclave a few days from now differ in a number of respects.
The Conclave of 2005 followed the death of a Pope, rather than resignation. Therefore it was imbued with sadness at the visible deterioration in the health of John Paul II, and the massive outpouring of grief at his death continued for many days.
Those elements do not invest the 2013 Conclave. The prevailing emotion is one of surprise tinged with admiration for the retiring Pope.
The 2005 Conclave followed a pontificate of 26 ½ years, the third longest in the history of the Papacy, while the 2013 Conclave follows a pontificate of not quite 8 years.
In 2005 the death was sudden and the Cardinals were immediately called to Rome. This year, the Cardinals have been given a couple of weeks notice to depart for Rome.
In 2005, as well as the meetings preceding the Conclave, there were the funeral and the nine Requiem Masses celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica. This year the only other event was the farewell gathering with Benedict XVI.
If there were difference between the two Conclaves, there were requirements that apply to both.
All procedures must be conducted in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis”.
That is a document issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996. It replaced similar documents of previous Popes, and set out definitive instructions for the “Sede Vacante” period and for the Conclave. Two features of our present-day Conclaves originate in that 13th Century Election.
One is the custom of locking up the Electors, which gives rise to the term ‘conclave’ from the Latin literally meaning ‘with key’.
The other is the smoke signalling: black when a ballot is inconclusive and white when a Pope is elected.
A Conclave must commence no less than 15 days and no more than 20 days after the death or resignation of a Pope. All Cardinals under the age of 80 (who comprise the College of Electors) are summoned to Rome by the Dean of the College of Cardinals (presently Cardinal Angelo Sodano).
Cardinals over the age of 80 may choose to come to Rome, but are not required to do so. All holding office in the government of the Church must vacate their positions. Governance of the Church devolves upon the Cardinal known as the Camerlengo (presently Tarcisio Bertone, appointed by Benedict XVI), who is assisted by a Cardinal Bishop, a Cardinal Priest and a Cardinal Deacon chosen by lot.
The three assistant Cardinals are replaced every three days, when a new group of three is appointed. The names are on tokens in three bags, one for each Order of Cardinals, and a blind draw takes place every three days. This draw takes place at the daily meetings of Cardinals, those over 80 as well as the Electors, held from 9am to 1pm during the Sede Vacante period.
The Camerlengo and the three assisting Cardinals deal with the ordinary matters that need attention. Matters of much greater significance that cannot be left until after the Conclave require decision by the whole group of Cardinals at the daily meetings.
In the presence of the Cardinals the Papal Ring is destroyed and the Papal Seal defaced, symbolising the definitive close of the Pontificate. A good deal of time is given over to prayer: in private, the Cardinals praying together, and in gatherings of the faithful in Rome and throughout the world.
A very real advantage of the daily meetings is that the Cardinals can come to know one another as they prepare for the Conclave. The Curial Cardinals, those who live full-time in Rome and have day-to-day responsibilities in Vatican bodies, are likely to know better their fellow Cardinals. The Pastoral Cardinals, those serving dioceses in Asia, Oceania, Africa, Europe and the Americas, will meet many members of the College for the first time.
It follows that activity during the daily meetings is putting faces to names, and little by little learning more of the background, personality, achievements and leadership qualities of these considered “papabile”, that is, suitable candidates for election as Pope.
Of course there is discussion aplenty before and after the sessions at the daily meetings, over the coffee cups and at meals, but its purpose was to gather information, not to solicit votes. Apart from learning about the Conclave requirements and procedures, the greater part of the daily meetings is devoted to discussing the challenges confronting the Church today and given those challenges, the qualities required in a new Pope.
The media are excluded to allow the Cardinals to speak freely and from the heart; but there are daily press releases and press conferences, and the Cardinals can be interviewed by journalists.
If my experience in 2005 is any guide, the interventions of many will be extremely moving as they tell of the plight of peoples suffering from lack of food and shelter, education and health care, war and persecution and the Church’s efforts to assist.
You probably remember, maybe you know by heart, the opening sentences of the Second Vatican Council’s document on “The Church in the Modern World”
Only the 116 Cardinal Electors remain in the awe-inspiring setting of the Sistine Chapel, after all others are asked to leave. The last to exit is the Master of the Papal Liturgical Ceremonies who locks the Chapel door behind him. Then the first ballot commences. Three scrutineers are chosen by lot from amongst all the Cardinals. Three more are chosen, also by lot, to collect if necessary the votes of any sick Cardinals confined to their rooms in Casa Santa Marta. A final three are chosen to double check the work of the Scrutineers; they are called Revisors.
Each Cardinal is given a ballot paper. It has printed on it only the words “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” I choose as Supreme Pontiff, and space to write the name of the preferred candidate.
Then in order of precedence each Cardinal approaches the altar beneath Michangelo’s “Last Judgement” holding up his folded voting paper.
At the altar he declares: “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 consider should be elected.”
He Places the ballot paper on to a metal plate, and tips it into a large urn in the middle of the altar. When all have voted, the three Scrutineers count and check the votes. The three Revisors re-check, and then each vote is read aloud, and threaded on a string.
Each Cardinal has a score-sheet on which to record the votes as they are called out. If no Cardinal has received at least a two-thirds majority, the score-sheets are collected and burned with the string of ballot-papers in a store at the rear of the Chapel. Chemicals are added to ensure that the smoke rising from the chimney on the Chapel roof is unmistakeably black.
Two similar ballots are held each morning and two each afternoon until one Cardinal is given the necessary two-thirds majority. When that happens, the Dean of the College of Cardinals approaches the successful candidate and asks “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”
On receiving consent, there is a further question: “By what name do you wish to be called?”
The door is unlocked and the Master of the Papal Liturgical Ceremonies with two officials to formally certify the election, acceptance by the new Pope, and his chosen name. The Pope is then led off to an adjoining room and puts on the white robes – there are three cassocks of different sizes to choose from.
When he emerges the great hymn of praise and thanksgiving “Te Deum”, is sung, then each Cardinal approaches the Pope seated before the altar to greet him and pledge his allegiance.
Meanwhile, the senior Cardinal Deacon goes to the balcony in the centre of the facade of St Peter’s and proclaims to the crowds thronging the Piazza.
“Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, habemus Papam...”
I announce to you news of great joy; we have a Pope... Cardinal... of the Holy Roman Church who has taken the name of...”
After an interval the Pope emerges, flanked by Cardinal Bishops, to address the people and give his first “Urbi et Orbi” blessing – to the city and the world...
The Cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel on the next day for a Mass of thanksgiving with the new Pope as main celebrant. That is followed by a celebratory meal with the Pope back at Casa Santa Marta. A few days later a public mass of Inauguration is celebrated in St Peter’s Square, after which, if the new Pope does what Benedict did, he will step into the Popemobile and be driven around to greet the people.
Thus begins the new Pope’s pontificate as 265th successor of St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome.
Cardinal Tom Williams is retired and living in Waikanae, north of Wellington, he won’t be voting in this 2013 Conclave as he is above the age of eligibility to vote (80). He is the only living New Zealander to have voted in a Conclave.