The novel ‘Angels and Demons’ by Dan Brown is the main source of knowledge about the Vatican for most of us. What we picture as the voting process of a pope is both ceremonious and traditional. This is not far from the truth.The pope is a widely respected name in the Catholic world. The title derives from the Latin ‘Papa’, which means father. He is the Bishop of Rome, the Head of State of the Vatican City and the leader of the Catholic World. Popular artist Michelangelo contributed heavily towards the Vatican City. The City is known for the famous St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. It runs as a separate state within Rome itself and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984.
When looking into the election of a pope, we must first look at the Cardinals as they are the only ones eligible to both vote and be elected. There seems to be no rule prohibiting any baptized Catholic to be eligible to be chosen as pope, although the Catholic Church does prohibit females from being ordained and thus being eligible. Since 1378 it has become the norm to choose a pope from within the College of Cardinals. This is a body of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 11th Century, since 1179 responsible for the election of the pope.However, only Cardinals below age 80 are eligible to vote and be voted for. Thus this year 118 Cardinals will be able to vote.
The Cardinals then elect a new Pope in the Conclave. It is a word believed to have been derived from the Latin cum clave which translates to ‘with a key.’ The Cardinals are simply sequestered in a secluded conclave in order to elect the new pope. This makes the voting of a pope more mysterious and also reduces the chances of interruption and interference or influence.The conclave takes place in the Apostolic Palace of the Sistine Chapel. This takes place no earlier than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the pope’s death or as in this year, the pope’s resignation.
Prior to 1621, a pope could be selected through acclamation, by selection (by committee), or by plenary vote. Acclamation is the simplest of these methods, a mere voice vote. Pope John Paul II is responsible for abolishing all selection methods except by the vote of the Sacred College of Cardinals.
When the Conclave meets, the electing process begins. Three cardinals are chosen to collect the votes of absent cardinal electors (by reason of illness), three are chosen to count the votes, and three are chosen to review the count of the votes. Each cardinal elector writes the name of the cardinal of his choice on a ballot, announces “one whom under God I think ought to be elected,” folds the ballot and places it on the plate atop a chalice, on the alter. The plate is then used to drop the ballot into the chalice, thus preventing multiple votes.
The ballots are then counted unopened and if it does not match the number of cardinals present, the ballots are burned and a new vote is held. If however the ballots match with the number of cardinals present, each ballot is read aloud and pierced through with a needle and thread. The ends are tied to ensure accuracy and honesty. This system continues until a Pope is voted by a two thirds majority.What is most unique is how the result is announced to the world. Once the ballots are counted and bound together, they are burned in a special stove in the Sistine Chapel. The smoke escapes through a small chimney visible from St. Peter’s Square. If the counting was unsuccessful and special chemical is added to the smoke that turns it black. White smoke announces the election of a new pope.
The elected, cardinal is then asked two questions by the Dean of the College of Cardinals. The first question is “Do you freely accept your election?” If he replies with the word “Accepto”, his reign begins at that instant and not at the inauguration ceremony which takes place several days later. He is then asked “By what name shall you be called?” Usually a cardinal adopts a new name for his reign as pope, mostly based on his favorite popes.
He is then led through the ‘Door of Tears’ where three types of papal vestments await him. He chooses from the three sizes and reemerges into the Sistine Chapel. He is then given the ‘Fisherman’s Ring’ by the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, whom he first either reconfirms or reappoints. He then assumes a place of honor as the rest of the cardinals offer their fist ‘obedience’ and receives blessing from the pope.It is only then that the Senior Cardinal Deacon announces over the balcony of St Peter’s Square, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam!” which translates as “I announce to you a great joy! We have a pope!” He then announces the new pope by his newly chosen regnal name.Thus the world is given a new pope and the Catholic world is appointed a new leader.