As March begins dozens of Cardinals have gathered in Rome to elect a new Pope. After nearly eight years as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, 85, surprised the world on February 11 by announcing he would step down as pontiff on Feb. 28 due to declining health.
It is the first time a pope has resigned since Gregory XII in 1415, who quit in the midst of a leadership crisis. “I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited” for leading the church, Benedict said. He added that his mind and body have deteriorated in the last few months. Born Joseph Ratzinger, he became the first social-media pope, tweeting in eight languages. A new pope is likely to be elected before Easter, which is on March 31st this year and will participate in Holy Week.
Back in 1978, in Rome, twenty days after the death of Paul VI, cardinals choose an Italian of peasant origins as Pope John Paul I. In late September, Pope John Paul was found dead after only 33 days in office and on October 16, 1978 a Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope to serve in over 400 years. Pope John Paul II died in early April 2005 and cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected and became Pope Benedict XVI shortly after. Pope Benedict is the first pope to resign in more than 600 years.
The transition period that ends in the election of a new pope, which is regulated by ancient traditions and recent rules is known by the Latin term “interregnum” and began at 8 p.m. Rome time on February 28, 2013, the date Pope Benedict stipulated in his recent resignation declaration for when the See of St. Peter will be vacant. Normally the interregnum begins with the pope’s death and is followed by a period of mourning but since the 85 year old pontiff said he no longer has the energy to exercise his ministry over the universal church the election process will soon begin.
I recently read an informative article from the Catholic News Service explaining the rules governing the interregnum, which are Church Law, not dogma which I will share in part with you: The apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis” confirms that as long as the Holy See is vacant, the universal church is governed by the College of Cardinals, which cannot make decisions normally reserved to the pope. Such matters must be postponed until the new pope is elected. Meanwhile, the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, is charged with making preparations for a conclave to elect a new pope, and the cardinals must set the time for the conclave to start.
The word conclave comes from Latin, meaning literally “with key”, and reflects the previous tradition of locking the cardinals in an area where they would spend day and night until the new pope’s election. At the present time there are 209 cardinals and all of them have been asked to meet in Rome to help administer the transition period, but only those cardinals under age 80 will be eligible to vote in the coming conclave. Cardinals who are age 80 or over by the time the conclave starts are excluded from the closed-door proceedings. There were approximately 116 cardinal-electors eligible to vote when the “sede vacante” began on February 28th. On the day in March set for entry into the conclave, the cardinal-electors assemble in St. Peter’s Basilica to attend morning Mass. In the afternoon, they walk in procession to the Sistine Chapel, located just to the north of St. Peter’s.
The voting may begin that afternoon with one ballot; on following days, normally two ballots are held in the morning and two in the afternoon. A pope is elected when he obtains a two-thirds majority, reflecting a change Pope Benedict established in 2007 that effectively undid a more flexible procedure introduced by Blessed John Paul. According to the new rule, the two-thirds-majority rule cannot be set aside even when cardinal-electors are at an impasse. All voting is secret, in writing, on paper ballots, which are deposited in a receptacle by each elector, then counted. Ballots are taken to any cardinals residing at the Domus Sanctae Marthae but who are too sick to come to the Sistine Chapel. After each morning and afternoon round of voting, the ballots are burned. By tradition but not by rule, they are burned with special chemicals to produce the black smoke signifying an inconclusive vote, or white smoke if a new pope was elected.
Due to confusion in the past as people in St. Peter’s Square tried to determine what color smoke was coming out of the Sistine Chapel smokestack, the Basilica’s bell is also rung to confirm a successful election. Once a new pope has been elected, he is asked if he accepts the office- he is encouraged but not bound to do so by the current rules- and is asked to choose a name. Traditionally, the senior member of the cardinal deacons, currently Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, 69, announces the successful election results from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. After the new pope has donned papal robes, he proceeds to the balcony, where he greets the public and offers his first blessing. At a time designated by the pope, usually a few days later, he officially opens his ministry with an investiture Mass at St. Peter’s.
Pope Benedict XVI’s papal ring was destroyed or melted down upon his resignation. He will spend a short period
of prayer and reflection at the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, before moving to a monastery at the Vatican.
Some people think the next Pope should be a woman. I do not think it will happen in my lifetime but several S.F. Chronicle readers wrote “Letters to Editor” expressing that sentiment including one Signor N.D. Of San Francisco which read: Take my wife for pope- please I am sure that most of the population of the world, including the majority of Catholics, are unaware that the College of Cardinals may elect anyone as the next pope, and not necessarily one of their own members. Therefore I would like to nominate my wife. As a woman with strong religious convictions, she is also a progressive who would bring the church into the 21st century. With unconditional love for people of all races, creeds and lifestyles, she would do more than just pray for peace in the world. And besides, she’s married to an Italian American, which wouldn’t hurt. Pope Judith I has a nice ring. Are you listening, Rome?
Nick Daddio, San Francisco