The Papal Transition: An Overview The Vatican has an intricate set of rules governing the papal transition. Father Thomas Reese, editor in chief of America, the Catholic weekly magazine, answers questions about the succession process and what to expect in the wake of Pope John Paul II's death.

The Papal Transition: An Overview

Crowds fill St. Peter's Square on April 3, 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II. Reuters hide caption

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Crowds fill St. Peter's Square on April 3, 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II.


The Vatican has an intricate set of rules governing the papal transition. Father Thomas Reese, editor in chief of America, the Catholic weekly magazine, answers questions about the succession process and what to expect in the wake of Pope John Paul II's death.

What happens when the pope dies?

When the pope dies, the prefect of the papal household (Bishop James Harvey) informs the camerlengo or chamberlain who must verify his death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, the cleric prelates of the Apostolic Camera, and the secretary of the Apostolic Camera who draws up a death certificate. The camerlengo (Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo) tells the vicar of Rome (Cardinal Camillo Ruini) of the pope's death and the vicar then informs the people of Rome. Meanwhile the prefect of the papal household tells the dean (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) of the College of Cardinals, who informs the rest of the college, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, and the heads of nations. Although this is the formal procedure, in fact most people will first hear of the death of the pope from the media.

The interregnum and election of a new pope are governed by the rules established in the 1996 constitution Universi Dominici Gregis ("Of the Lord's Whole Flock") of John Paul II.

The camerlengo locks and seals the private apartment of the pope. In the past, looting of papal apartments by his staff, the cardinals or the Roman populace was a common custom. Today popes are more concerned that their private papers not get into the wrong hands. If the pope writes a will, the executor he appoints will take care of his private property and his private papers. This executor is answerable only to the next pope. The pope's Fisherman's ring and his seal are broken to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries. No autopsy is performed, which can lead to wild media speculation if the pope dies suddenly as occurred with John Paul I, who died in 1978 after only a month in office.

When is the pope's funeral?

After the death of the pope, the cardinals arrange for the funeral rites, to be celebrated for nine consecutive days. The date for the funeral and burial is set by the College of Cardinals but the apostolic constitution states it is to "take place, except for special reasons, between the fourth and sixth day after death." (Pope John Paul II's funeral is set for Friday, April 8.) The funeral is arranged by the camerlengo in accordance with instructions left him by the pope.

Who runs the church between the pope's death and the election of a new pope?

All the cardinals and archbishops in charge of departments in the Roman Curia, including the secretary of state (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), lose their jobs when the pope dies. The ordinary faculties of these offices do not cease on the death of the pope, but serious and controversial matters are to await the election of a new pope. The offices are run by their secretaries who remain in position, as do the secretary for relations with states (Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo) and the sostituto (Archbishop Leonardo Sandri). If the matter cannot be postponed, the College of Cardinals can entrust it to the prefect or president who was in charge of the office when the pope died (or to other cardinals who were members of that congregation or council). Any decision made is provisional until confirmed by a new pope.

Three major officials do not lose their jobs: the vicar of the diocese of Rome (Cardinal Camillo Ruini), the major penitentiary (Archbishop J. Francis Stafford) and the camerlengo. The vicar for Rome provides for the pastoral needs of the diocese of Rome and continues to have all of the powers he had under the pope. The major penitentiary deals with confessional matters reserved to the Holy See, and he is allowed to continue because the door to forgiveness should never be closed.

The camerlengo (Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo) is the most important official during the interregnum. While the pope is alive, the camerlengo has the authority to act for the pope in certain areas when the pope is away from Rome. On the death of the pope, the camerlengo takes charge of and administers the property and money of the Holy See with the help of three cardinal assistants who are chosen by lot from among those cardinals under 80. During the interregnum he reports to the College of Cardinals, which governs the church until a pope is elected. He also organizes the conclave.

Although the government of the church is in the hands of the College of Cardinals until a new pope is elected, the powers of the college are limited. It cannot change the rules governing papal elections, appoint cardinals, or make any decisions binding on the next pope. The cardinals meet daily in a general congregation presided over by the dean of the college until the conclave begins. All the cardinals attend the general congregation although attendance by those over 80 is optional. A commission headed by the camerlengo with three cardinals (chosen by lot and replaced every three days from among the cardinals under 80) can deal with lesser issues.

Is there campaigning prior to the conclave?

Even discussion, let alone campaigning, prior to the death of a pope is strictly forbidden. The prohibition against discussing papal succession while the pope is still alive dates back to Felix IV (526-530), who instructed the clergy and the Roman Senate to elect his archdeacon, Boniface, as his successor. The senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope's successor during his lifetime.

Discussions prior to the conclave do occur privately among cardinals, but public campaigning even after the pope's death is frowned upon and would probably be counterproductive. Cardinals who travel a lot are sometimes suspected of traveling so that they can meet and become known to other cardinals prior to the conclave. The cardinals have also gotten to know each other at synods of bishops and other meetings where they see each other in action. Normally the discussion of candidates is done privately by cardinals over dinner or in small groups.

When and where is the conclave held?

Unless circumstances prevent it, the conclave takes place inside Vatican City and begins 15 days after death of the pope. For serious reasons, the cardinals can defer the beginning of the conclave, but it must begin within 20 days of the pope's death. The actual date and time is set by the College of Cardinals. (In the current case, the conclave is scheduled to begin April 18.) The actual election is in the Sistine Chapel, with the cardinals living in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican residence with 108 suites and 23 single rooms, which is vacated of its normal residents during a conclave.

Where does the word "conclave" come from?

In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year and a half before the election of Innocent IV and for three and a half years before the installation of Gregory X. In the first case, the election was finally forced by the senate and people of Rome, who locked up the cardinals until a pope was chosen in 1243. Likewise, in the second case, the people of Viterbo in 1271 not only locked the cardinals in, but tore off the roof of the building and put the cardinals on a diet of bread and water. The word "conclave" comes from the Latin, "with a key," as locked with a key. Today the cardinals are locked in to ensure secrecy and to protect them from outside influence. Before the conclave begins, all telephones, cell phones, radios, televisions and Internet connections are removed. No letters or newspapers are permitted. All the rooms are swept for electronic bugs by trained technicians. Whether this will be sufficient to stop more sophisticated eavesdropping remains to be seen.

Who is permitted in the conclave?

All cardinals under 80 years of age when the pope dies have the right to vote for the next pope, unless they have been canonically deposed or, with the permission of the pope, renounced the cardinalate. Even an excommunicated cardinal can attend. Once inside the conclave, an elector may not leave except because of illness or other grave reasons acknowledged by a majority of the cardinals.

Also permitted in the conclave are nurses for infirm cardinals, two medical doctors, religious priests who can hear confessions in various languages, the secretary of the college of cardinals, the master of papal liturgical celebrations with two masters of ceremonies and two religious attached to the papal sacristy, and an assistant chosen by the cardinal dean. Also permitted are a suitable number of persons for preparing and serving meals and for housekeeping. They must swear absolute and perpetual secrecy concerning anything they learn concerning the election of the pope.

Who are the cardinal electors?

All cardinals under 80 years of age when the pope dies have the right to vote for the next pope. Currently, there are 117 cardinal electors, all but three appointed by John Paul II.

The average age of the electors is 71.7. About 49.6 percent are from Europe -- 17.1 percent from Italy; 22.2 percent from the rest of Western Europe; 10.3 percent from Eastern Europe. About 37.3 percent are from the Third World. Asia and Africa have 9.4 percent each; Latin America 17.9 percent; Oceania, 1.7 percent. The United States has 9.4 percent (not counting Cardinal Husar, who gave up his U.S. citizenship after returning to Ukraine), second only to Italy; and 2.6 percent are from Canada. Curial cardinals make up about 23.9 percent of the electors.

The maximum number of cardinals was set at 70 by Sixtus V in 1586. John XXIII ignored this limit and the college grew to over 80 cardinals. In 1970 Paul VI reformed the College of Cardinals by increasing the number of electors to 120, not counting those 80 years of age and over who were excluded as electors. John Paul II exceeded this limit by two in 1998 and by 15 in 2001 and 2003.

How has John Paul II changed the makeup of the college of cardinals?

John Paul II has made the college less Italian and more Eastern European. At the death of Paul VI in 1978, 23.7 percent of the college was Italian and 6.1 percent was from Eastern Europe (including Berlin); today, 16.9 percent is Italian and 10.2 percent is Eastern European. There are also slightly more Latin Americans: today 18.6 percent versus 16.7 percent in 1978. The percent from Africa (9.3 percent versus 10.5 percent) and Asia (9.3 percent versus 8.8 percent) are almost exactly the same. The percent from the U.S. is 9.3 percent today versus 10.5 percent in 1978.

Have the cardinals always elected the pope?

Although the College of Cardinals elects the pope today, this was not the rule until the 11th century. A few early popes, including St. Peter, may have appointed their successors, but this method did not gain acceptance. In the early church, popes were usually chosen by the clergy and people of Rome in the same way that bishops in other dioceses were elected. The one elected was then ordained by bishops of the surrounding towns. This democratic process worked well when the church was small and united. But disagreements led to factions who fought over the papacy. As early as 217 the Christians of Rome were so divided over an election that fighting broke out. Pagan soldiers broke up the fight and exiled both men to the Sardinian tin mines. In 366, mobs and hired thugs from opposing factions invaded churches and killed opponents by the hundreds. Roman nobles, emperors and kings began interfering in papal elections as the church became rich and powerful.

After the eighth century, the papal electors were limited to the Roman clergy. This followed the pattern of other dioceses where the clergy elected the bishop. The man elected pope was normally a priest or deacon. A bishop was not elected until 891 (Formosus) because it was considered improper for a bishop to leave the diocese for which he had originally been ordained a bishop.

Nicholas II (1059-1061) proposed a system whereby the cardinal bishops would meet to nominate a candidate and then invite in the cardinal priests to vote on him. Alexander III modified this system by including all the cardinals in the election process from the beginning. Since 1179, only cardinals have voted for the pope, except for the 1417 election ending the Western Schism. In this election, 30 representatives chosen from the Council of Constance joined the 23 cardinals (five from the Roman line and 18 from the Pisa line) in electing the new pope.

The cardinals are divided into three orders or categories: cardinal deacons, cardinal priests and cardinal bishops. The cardinal priests were the pastors of major churches in Rome and the cardinal deacons were important administrators in the diocese, often of what we would call charities or social services today. The cardinal bishops were the bishops of the six dioceses surrounding Rome. In the 11th century popes began appointing prelates in distant lands as cardinals.

What happens on the first day of the conclave?

On the morning the conclave begins, the cardinal electors celebrate Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon, they gather in the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace and solemnly process to the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals take an oath to observe the rules laid down in Universi Dominici Gregis (the apostolic constitution), especially those enjoining secrecy. They also swear not to support interference in the election by any secular authorities or "any group of people or individuals who might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman pontiff." Finally, the electors swear that whoever is elected will carry out the "munus Petrinum of pastor of the universal church" and will "affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See." Another section of the constitution says that the new pope is not bound by any oaths or promises made prior to his election.

After the oath is taken, everyone not connected with the conclave is ordered out with the Latin words "Extra omnes."

After everyone else leaves, an ecclesiastic, chosen earlier by the college of cardinals, gives a meditation "concerning the grave duty incumbent on them and thus on the need to act with right intention for the good of the universal church, solum Deum prae oculis habentes [having only God before your eyes]." When he finishes, he leaves the Sistine Chapel with the master of papal liturgical ceremony so that only the cardinal electors remain. The time in the chapel is for prayer and voting in silence, not campaign speeches.

Negotiations and arguments are to take place outside the chapel. If they wish, the cardinals can immediately begin the election process and hold one ballot on the afternoon of the first day. If no one receives the required two-thirds votes in the balloting on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet again the next morning.

How does the balloting take place?

The regulations for balloting are very detailed to eliminate any suspicion of electoral fraud -- no hanging chads here. Three "scrutineers" (vote counters) are chosen by lot from the electors, with the least senior cardinal deacon drawing the names. He draws three additional names of cardinals (called infirmarii) who will collect the ballots of any cardinals in the conclave who are too sick to come to the Sistine Chapel. A final three names are drawn by lot to act as revisers who review the work done by the scrutineers. Each morning and afternoon, new scrutineers, infirmarii, and revisers are chosen by lot.

The electors use rectangular cards as ballots with "Eligo in summum pontificem" ("I elect as supreme pontiff") printed at the top. When folded down the middle the ballot is only one inch wide. Each cardinal in secret prints or writes the name of his choice on the ballot in a way that disguises his handwriting. One at a time, in order of precedence, the cardinals approach the altar with their folded ballot held up so that it can be seen. On the altar there is a receptacle (traditionally a large chalice) covered by a plate (a paten). After kneeling in prayer for a short time, the cardinal rises and swears, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." He then places the ballot on the plate. Finally he picks up the plate and uses it to drop the ballot into the receptacle. The use of the plate makes it difficult for a cardinal to drop two ballots into the chalice.

The first scrutineer uses the plate as a cover when shaking the receptacle to mix the ballots. The last scrutineer counts the ballots before they are unfolded. If the number of ballots does not correspond to the number of electors, the ballots are burned without being counted and another vote is immediately taken. If the number of ballots does match the number of electors, the scrutineers, who are sitting at a table in front of the altar, begin counting the votes.

The first scrutineer unfolds the ballot, notes the name on a piece of paper, and passes the ballot to the second scrutineer. He notes the name and passes the ballot to the third scrutineer, who reads it aloud for all the cardinals to hear. If there are two names on a single ballot, the ballot is not counted. The last scrutineer pierces each ballot with a threaded needle through the word "Eligo (elect)" and places it on the thread. After all the ballots have been read, the ends of the thread are tied and the ballots thus joined are placed in an empty receptacle. The scrutineers then add up the totals for each candidate. Finally, the three revisers check both the ballots and the notes of the scrutineers to make sure that they performed their task faithfully and exactly.

To be elected, two-thirds of the votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present. Should it be impossible to divide the number of cardinals present into three equal parts, for the validity of the election one additional vote is required.

The ballots and notes (including those made by any cardinal) are then burned unless another vote is to take place immediately. The ballots are burned by the scrutineers with the assistance of the secretary of the conclave and the master of ceremonies, who adds special chemicals to make the smoke white or black. Since 1903, white smoke has signaled the election of a pope; black smoke signals an inconclusive vote. The only written record of the voting permitted is a document prepared by the camerlengo, and approved by the three cardinal assistants, which is prepared at the end of the election and gives the results of each session. This document is given to the new pope and then placed in the archives in a sealed envelope that may be opened by no one unless the pope gives permission.

How long can the conclave last?

The conclave lasts until a new pope is elected. The last conclave to go more than five days was in 1831: it lasted 54 days. In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year and a half before the election of Innocent IV and for three and a half years before the installation of Gregory X. Since then, 29 conclaves have lasted a month or more. Often wars or civil disturbances in Rome caused these lengthy interregnums. Sometimes delays were caused by the cardinals, who enjoyed the power and financial rewards of running the papacy without a pope. These abuses led to rules governing an interregnum and requiring the speedy calling of a conclave.

What happens after the first day?

If no one receives the required two-thirds votes in the balloting on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet again the next morning. If they are again unsuccessful, they immediately vote again. From then on, there can be two votes in the morning and two in the afternoon. Each morning and afternoon, new scrutineers, infirmarii, and revisers are chosen by lot. If a second vote takes place, the materials from two votes are burned at the same time. Thus twice a day there will be black smoke from the stove until a pope is elected.

If after three days the cardinals have still not elected anyone, the voting sessions can be suspended for one day for prayer and discussion among the electors. During this intermission, a brief spiritual exhortation is given by the senior cardinal deacon. Then another seven votes take place followed by a suspension and an exhortation by the senior cardinal priest. Another seven votes take place followed by a suspension and an exhortation by the senior cardinal bishop. Voting is then resumed for another seven ballots.

If no candidate receives a two-thirds vote after all of these ballots, the camerlengo invites the electors to express an opinion about the manner of proceeding. It is at this point that John Paul II dramatically changed the election process by allowing an absolute majority (more than half) of the electors to waive the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote. Thus, an absolute majority of the electors can decide to elect the pope by an absolute majority. They can also decide to force a choice between the two candidates who in the preceding ballot received the greatest number of votes. In this second case only an absolute majority is required.

As a consequence, if an absolute majority of the electors favored a candidate in the first ballot of the first day of the conclave, in theory they could hold firm for about 12 days through about 30 votes until they could change the rules and elect their candidate. In the past, the two-thirds requirement was an incentive for the electors to compromise or move to another candidate. Now a majority does not have to compromise. In actuality, the minority would undoubtedly give in rather than scandalize the faithful and upset the man who inevitably would become pope.

John Paul II did not explain in Universi Dominici Gregis why he made this change. Perhaps he feared a long conclave. By giving the cardinals more comfortable quarters, he reduced the discomfort factor that discouraged long conclaves. Allowing the cardinals to elect a pope with an absolute majority reduces the likelihood of a conclave going on for months. On the other hand, allowing an absolute majority to elect a pope after about 12 days increases the likelihood of a conclave lasting that long.

Who can be elected?

In theory, any man can be elected who is willing to be baptized and ordained a priest and bishop. He does not have to be at the conclave. The last noncardinal elected was Urban VI (1378). The last cardinal to be elected pope who was a priest but not a bishop was Gregory XVI (1831). Callistus III (Affonso Borgia, 1455) was the last person to be elected who was not a priest. Most likely a cardinal elector will be elected, all of who today are bishops.

Who might be elected?

I think that the next pope will be a cardinal who is between 62 and 72 years of age, speaks Italian and English, who reflects John Paul's positions (liberal on social justice and peace, traditional in church teaching and practice, and ecumenical but convinced the church has the truth) but has a very different personality, and is a supporter of less centralization in the church and therefore probably not a curial cardinal.

Age. The average age of popes elected during the 20th century was 65 -- John XXIII was the oldest at 76; John Paul II was 58. The average age of current cardinals is 71.7. Some argue that the cardinals will elect an elderly cardinal because they will not want another long papacy. On the other hand, do they want to elect a cardinal who will soon be elderly and sick like the current pope? I don't think so.

Languages. John Paul has shown how important it is for the pope to be multilingual. Italian is important because it is the language of the people of Rome for whom the pope is bishop. It is also the working language of the Vatican curia. English is important because it is a leading first or second language. Spanish is valuable because it is the language of so many Catholics. Languages are also important because the cardinals will want to be able to talk to the pope in a language they are comfortable with.

Positions. John Paul has appointed all but three of the current cardinals under the age of 80 who will elect his successor. In appointing cardinals, John Paul II has appointed men who agree with him on the major issues that face the church. The next conclave, as a result, will not elect someone who will reject the legacy of John Paul. With the next pope, we will see more continuity than change.

But governance style could change. For example, the cardinals may look for someone who would allow more decentralization in decision making in the church, with more power to individual bishops and bishops conferences rather than the Vatican curia. Over three-quarters of the cardinals are diocesan bishops who, even if conservative, may prefer to have less interference from Vatican bureaucrats.

As a result, there will be more continuity than change in church doctrine and policy. That means someone who is liberal on political and economic issues but traditional on sexual morality and internal church issues. Someone who supports ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue but is convinced the church has the truth. In short, I do not support the "pendulum" theory when it comes to doctrine, but it may be true on personality and governance style.

Less Centralization. When the cardinals gather in conclave, they will praise John Paul, but there may be a backlash against the Vatican curia whose power has grown during this papacy. Even the most conservative cardinal wants to run his diocese the way he thinks best without interference from Rome. As a result, the cardinals may look for someone who would support more decentralization of decision making in the church -- more power to bishops and bishops' conferences.

Not a Curial Cardinal. Seventy-five percent of the cardinals are diocesan bishops who are running local churches. They want someone who knows what it is like to be a local bishop, not simply a Vatican bureaucrat. Many cardinals working in the curia had diocesan experience before they came to Rome, and some Vatican officials left the curia and became cardinals as archbishops of local churches. These cardinals with both experiences have an advantage. Of the popes elected during the 20th century, only Pius XII had no diocesan experience, and only three (Pius X, John Paul I and John Paul II) never worked in the Vatican. The remaining five had worked in the curia but were leaders of archdioceses when elected pope.

What happens after the election?

The cardinal dean asks the man, "Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?" Rarely does anyone say no. When offered the papacy at the 1271 Viterbo conclave, St. Philip Benizi fled and hid until another candidate was chosen. Likewise St. Charles Borromeo, one of the few cardinals to be canonized, turned down the papacy. When Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, the 76-year-old archbishop of Milan, began receiving votes during the October 1978 conclave, he made it clear that he would refuse the papacy if elected. If the man says yes, then he becomes pope immediately if he is already a bishop. The rest is simply ceremony. If he is not a bishop, he is to be ordained immediately by the cardinal dean and becomes pope as soon as he is ordained a bishop.

He is then asked by what name he wants to be called. The first pope to change his name was John II in 533. His given name, Mercury, was considered inappropriate since it was the name of a pagan god. Another pope in 983 took the name John XIV because his given name was Peter. Reverence for the first pope precluded his becoming Peter II. At the end of the first millennium a couple of non-Italian popes changed their names to ones that their people could more easily pronounce. The custom of changing one's name became common around the year 1009. The last pope to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in 1555.

The cardinals then approach the new pope and make an act of homage and obedience. A prayer of thanksgiving is then said, and then the senior cardinal deacon announces to the people in St. Peter's Square that the election has taken place and the name of the new pope. The pope then may speak to the crowd and grant his first solemn blessing "urbi et orbi," to the city and the world. John Paul I and John Paul II prolonged the conclave until the following morning so that they could meet and dine with the cardinals.

John Paul II had audiences for diplomats and the press in the week after his election. The inauguration mass took place six days after the election.

Further Reading on Conclaves

Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, by Thomas J. Reese (Harvard University Press, 1996).

Conclave by John Allen, Jr. (Random House, 2002)

The Next Pope by Peter and Margaret Hebblethwaite (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995; revised 2000)

The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church by James-Charles Noonan, Jr. (Viking, 1996)