Thursday, February 28, 2013

Papal resignation and conclave - 6

Papal resignation and conclave – 6



Joseph Ratzinger's last day as pope


As I sit here writing this piece at 8:55 p.m. Rome time on Thursday, February 28, 2013, the apostolic see has been vacant for 55 minutes and will remain so until a new pope is elected. Rome is without a bishop, at least temporarily. It all happened like clockwork just as planned down to the smallest detail. Here is a brief summary.


The pope met today with the cardinals, those who work in the Vatican and those who have arrived from all over the world to elect his successor. It is intriguing to think that the next pope was probably sitting in that room. In fact, Benedict said to them: "One of you will be elected pope", then he went on to pledge his own loyalty and obedience to whomever the new pontiff might be. Of course we should say that there is no rule which says the pope has to be chosen from among the cardinals. Well, we've had enough unprecedented situations in the past few weeks. Electing a non-cardinal would be just too much to comprehend! After his talk the pope shook hands with each one of the cardinals present (about 125 of them).


Then at 4:50 p.m. he was driven the short distance from the apostolic palace to the Vatican helipad. There was more than enough emotion to go around. Even the pope's driver was in tears. There was an honor guard of Swiss Guards to see him off and the official farewell before takeoff was offered by the dean of the College of cardinals, Angelo Sodano. As the helicopter took off and flew low over the Vatican and the city of Rome, all the church bells of the city began to ring. After he reached the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo he made one final appearance at the balcony of the palace to greet the many citizens of that small town who turned out to see him.


But the most dramatic moment occurred – and I'm sure many of you saw it on television – at exactly 8:00 p.m. when the two Swiss Guards on duty at the enormous main gate of the palace turned around and slowly walked inside, closing and locking the gate behind them. It was the Guards' last official duty performed for this pontiff. They are sworn to guard and protect the pope, and the man inside the palace is no longer the pope. Three Vatican gendarmes were there to relieve the Swiss Guards of their duty.


The Conclave


Now that the Church has officially entered a state of sede vacante, we can shift our attention to the conclave which will elect the successor to Benedict XVI. Here are some brief remarks about this procedure of the conclave.


The election will take place in the Sistine Chapel, constructed during the papacy of Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and frescoed by Michelangelo in the sixteenth century.


At the beginning of the sede vacante most of the prelates in the Roman Curia, such as the Secretary of State, for example, lose the right to exercise their office. They will have to be re-appointed or replaced by the new pope. The normal administration of the Church during the sede vacante is conducted by the cardinal Camerlengo, Tarcisio Bertone, who is also the pope's Secretary of State. (Although he loses the office of Secretary of State, he retains the office of Camerlengo). Among his other duties, the Camerlengo seals the papal apartment which will remain sealed until the new pope has been elected. This was done shortly after Pope Benedict left for Castel Gandolfo at 5:00 p.m. today.


The cardinals themselves (all 209 of them, not just the 117 electors) will fix the date of the beginning of the conclave. They do this at the first of their general meetings, presided over by the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano. (It is interesting to note that, although he is the dean of the College, Sodano cannot participate in the conclave itself because he has reached the age of 80).


Once the cardinals have entered the conclave, they are not allowed to have any contact with the outside world: no radio, TV, newspapers, telephone, computer or any other kind of electronic device which can connect to the outside. They are housed within the walls of the Vatican in a residence called Domus Sanctae Marthae (House of St. Martha), built during the pontificate of John Paul II for this specific purpose. So this is the second conclave to use the residence. The cardinals are transported by a shuttle bus between the residence and the Sistine Chapel for the votes, or they can chose to walk the short distance. If they chose to walk they are not allowed to stop along the way and have contact with anyone other than a fellow cardinal elector.


When the voting begins there will be four ballots per day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. As each cardinal places his marked ballot in a chalice on a table in front of the altar of the chapel, he recites the following oath: I call to witness Christ the Lord, who will judge me, that my vote has been given to the person whom, according to God, I believe should be elected. Drama is added to this scene since the cardinal is standing directly in front of Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment when he takes this oath!


If at the 33rd vote (8 days) no one has reached a two-thirds majority, there will be a run-off between the two candidates who received the most votes in that 33rd ballot. Up until this conclave, the rule was that at this point it would take only a simple majority (half the votes plus one) to be elected. Benedict, in his recent motu proprio changed that rule. It will still take a two-thirds majority, even in the runoff votes. So beginning with the 34th ballot there are only two candidates left, and the voting continues until one of the two has received two-thirds of the votes.


After each vote the ballots are burned in a special fireplace set up for the occasion in the chapel. The smoke rises up out of the chimney placed on the roof of the chapel. If no one has been elected, a chemical is added to the burning ballots, which will produce black smoke as a signal to the crowd in the piazza that a vote was taken but no one was elected. If someone has been elected the ballots will be burned without the chemical, producing white smoke, the signal that a new pope has been elected. At this point the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will begin to ring, and all the other churches will follow suit so that the entire city knows that there has been a successful election, and that Rome has a new bishop.


About an hour after the election, the doors of the center balcony will swing open and the head cardinal deacon (in this case the French cardinal, Jean-Luis Tauran) will make the now-famous announcement in Latin: Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam! "I announce to you a great joy. We have a pope!" He will continue, revealing the name of the person elected and the name he has chosen as pope. The cardinal then steps aside and the new pope walks onto the balcony. He gives a short talk and then imparts his first Urbi et Orbi blessing (to the city and to the world). This is always an emotional and dramatic moment, as well as one of great joy, which I hope to be a part of, as I was almost eight years ago when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as Benedict XVI.


(You can read the full story of this balcony, called Loggia delle Benedizioni, in my book: Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 13).


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