The 'strictest' secrecy: a look at how conclaves work

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Pope Benedict XVI's successor will soon be elected during a conclave, a secret vote of cardinals that will occur in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel next month.

The number of cardinal-electors, who will travel to Rome from across the globe, is limited to 120, and only those cardinals who are not yet 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave.

Conclaves are events of "the strictest secrecy," to preserve the impartiality of proceedings. Cardinal-electors must "promise, pledge and maintain rigorous secrecy" about everything in any way related to the election of the Pope, according to John Paul II's 1996 apostolic constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis."

The cardinals are not allowed to communicate with those outside the area of the election. Only a limited number of masters of ceremonies and priests are allowed to be present, as are two medical doctors. The cardinal-electors stay at "Saint Martha's House," a guest house adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica.

While the papacy is vacant, all the heads of the Roman Curia lose their office, except the Camerlengo – who administers Church finances and property – and the Major Penitentiary, who deals with issues of absolution and indulgences.

The conclave begins with the votive Mass for the election of the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica. The cardinals then invoke the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and enter the Sistine Chapel.

A well-trusted priest presents the cardinals with a meditation on the problems facing the Church and the need for discernment, "concerning the grave duty incumbent on them and thus on the need to act with right intention for the good of the Universal Church, having only God before their eyes."

The priest who offered the meditation then leaves the Sistine Chapel, and the voting process begins.

John Paul II allowed for a simple majority for a valid election, but Pope Benedict's "Constitutione apostolica" returned to the long-standing tradition of a two-thirds majority.

Each cardinal writes his choice for Pope on a piece of paper which is folded in two. The ballots are then counted, double-checked, and burned. The voting process continues until one candidate has received two-thirds of the ballots.

When the ballots of an inconclusive vote are burned, the smoke is made black. If the vote elected a Pope, it is white; and at the 2005 conclave, the bells of St. Peter's were rung in addition, upon the election of Pope Benedict.

John Paul II exhorted that the one elected not refuse, "for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it."

"In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office."

The man elected is immediately the Bishop of Rome upon his acceptance, assuming he has already been consecrated a bishop. One of the cardinals announce to the public that the election has taken place, and the new Pontiff gives a blessing from the balcony of the Vatican Basilica.

Pope Benedict will resign at 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, and at that time there will be 117 cardinal-electors. Under current law, the conclave must begin between March 15 and 20. Of the 117 cardinal-electors, 67 – more than half – were appointed by Pope Benedict.

The conclave as the means of selecting the Pope has a long tradition in the Church, yet it can be changed.

Current law governing how conclaves work is found in John Paul II's 1996 apostolic constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis," and it was modified by Pope Benedict's 2007 motu proprio "Constitutione apostolica."

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Under current law, the conclave cannot begin before 15 days after the moment the Holy See is vacant, so as to wait for the absent cardinal-electors to arrive. It must begin within 20 days of the vacancy.

It was announced Feb. 20 that Pope Benedict is considering releasing a motu proprio before his abdication that would allow the conclave electing his successor to begin before March 15.

Recent conclaves have concluded quickly. Pope Benedict was himself elected in a 2005 conclave that lasted only two days. John Paul II was elected in 1978 after a three-day long conclave.

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