1. Prayer is the most important part – for the cardinals and for the faithful. Before the conclave itself begins, the cardinals say a Mass “For the Election of a Pope” and pray the “Veni Creator,” a hymn calling on the Holy Spirit.
John Paul II wrote that during the vacancy, “the universal Church, spiritually united with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, should persevere with one heart in prayer; thus the election of the new Pope will not be something unconnected with the People of God and concerning the College of electors alone, but will be in a certain sense an act of the whole Church.”
Continuing in his 1996 document about conclaves, “Universi Dominici Gregis,” he said that “humble and persevering prayers are to be offered to the Lord, that he may enlighten the electors and make them so likeminded in their task that a speedy, harmonious and fruitful election may take place, as the salvation of souls and the good of the whole People of God demand.”
2. The Diocese of Rome became vacant at noon on February 28th, when Pope Benedict’s abdication went into effect. The conclave to elect his successor must begin within 20 days of the vacancy – by March 20th.
3. Everyone involved in a conclave is sworn to “rigorous secrecy” – and if someone lets slip details about a conclave, they are “latae sententiae,” or automatically, excommunicated. These safeguards are meant to preserve the impartiality of proceedings, with no interference from governments, media or public opinion.
4. All cardinals under 80 years old are supposed to participate in the conclave by voting. When Pope Benedict abdicated, 117 cardinals were eligible to vote. However, two have recused themselves: Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop emeritus of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, who recently resigned, and Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, archbishop emeritus of Jakarta, who is too unwell to travel to Rome.
5. This means 115 cardinals are expected to vote in the conclave to elect Pope Benedict’s successor. Election requires a two-thirds majority, so that means 77 cardinal-electors will have to vote for the man who will become the next Pope. Most of the current electors (67 of them) were appointed by Pope Benedict.
6. On February 22nd, Pope Benedict modified the laws governing conclaves so that they can start earlier than in the past. The College of Cardinals “is also granted the faculty to anticipate the beginning of the Conclave if all the Cardinal electors are present,” he wrote in a document called “Normas nonnullas.” Conclaves are not characteristically allowed to start until 15 days after the vacancy. But since vacancies are usually surprise events caused by death, and not planned abdication, the need to give cardinals plenty of time to arrive in Rome is not so pressing this time around. Some cardinals, including New York’s Cardinal Dolan, were actually in Rome in time to bid farewell to Pope Benedict before he left office.