There is nothing in the world like the papacy. Beginning with Saint Peter, who was appointed head of the church by Christ himself, a scant 265 men have served as the Bishop of Rome and head of the Christian church. Most have been great men. A few have been down-right diabolical. But all down the line, the successors of Saint Peter—and the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that they shepherd—have been protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching error in matters of faith and morals. Christ promised as much when he appointed Saint Peter to lead his people: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:19, RSV-CE).
But, despite what some might claim, the Holy Spirit doesn’t sweep down from heaven and ordain a new pope. In 1997, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI only eight years later—said, “The Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!”
This is consistent with the establishment of what we now call the papacy as recorded in Holy Scripture. Christ told Peter that the powers of death (or the ‘gates of hell’) would not prevail against the Church. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t make inroads at times. That doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be dark, evil days in the development and spread of the Christian faith. That doesn’t mean that our priests, bishops, and even our popes wouldn’t fall woefully short at times. No, it just means that their sins (and ours) can never completely eclipse the underlying truths of the Christian faith. And they haven’t. Sin has bruised us, and hurt us, and embarrassed us . . . but it has not beaten us. It can’t. Sin has already been conquered.
So how does the election of a pope work?
Before we can get into that, we need to understand the hierarchy of Holy Orders and the administrative structure of the Catholic Church. We recognize Holy Orders as one of the seven sacraments that Christ established—one of seven outward signs of inward grace. Some men are called by God to serve him ‘in persona Christi’—in the person of Christ. In other words, Christ intended that some men would continue to act on his behalf in the world after his death and resurrection, teaching his word, forgiving sins in his name (cf. John 20:23), and sharing the Holy Eucharist with the people of God (cf. Luke 22:19). Men can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders up-to three times: first as deacon (teacher), then as priest (offerer of sacrifice), then as bishop (leader or overseer). These are the only three levels of Holy Orders. The other titles you may hear—monsignor, archbishop, cardinal, and pope—are all administrative or ceremonial offices. A monsignor is, sacramentally speaking, just a priest. An archbishop, cardinal, or pope is, sacramentally speaking, just a bishop.
We could get into a whole long treatise about all of this, but all we need to know regarding the papal conclave is this: First, the pope is the head bishop of the whole church, and the successor of Saint Peter, and (politically speaking) the sovereign [monarch] of the Vatican City State. He has been duly appointed by the College of Cardinals in a papal conclave. Second, cardinals are bishops who have been appointed by the pope to have additional administrative duties, including the responsibility of electing a new pope in the event of a vacancy.
For much of the church’s history, the College of Cardinals has numbered fewer than thirty members. Beginning in the year 1555, that number began a slow increase, peaking at 144 under Pope Paul VI in 1973. Today, the number of cardinal-electors must be fewer than 120, and cardinals become ineligible to vote in papal conclaves at the age of eighty. There are currently 117 cardinals under the age of eighty who will be eligible to vote in the upcoming conclave. All of them were appointed either by Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI.
A papal vacancy occurs when the pope dies or resigns. The period between popes is called ‘sede vacante,’ which is Latin for ‘vacant seat,’ or an ‘interregnum,’ which is Latin for ‘between the reigns [of kings].’ When such a vacancy occurs, the College of Cardinals is required to convene a conclave within fifteen days (although they can extend this to twenty days to allow for cardinals’ travel time, if necessary).
The cardinals are then sealed in the Sistine Chapel, located in the Vatican, to begin the process of selecting a new pope. Technically speaking, any Baptized man is eligible to serve as pope . . . so long as he is first ordained deacon, then priest, then bishop. In practice, however, popes are chosen from among the cardinals. The last time that a papal conclave elected a non-cardinal was when they elected Archbishop Bartolomeo Prignano—who took the name Pope Urban VI—in 1378. Once elected, the prospective pope has to accept . . . and he does have the option to refuse election, although that hasn’t happened in many centuries.
Once the conclave begins, votes are held four times each day. To be elected, a prospective pope must receive the votes of two-thirds of the College of Cardinals . . . which is very unlikely until a number of votes have occurred. After the ballots have been counted, they are burned. When a ballot has failed to elect a pope, it is burned along with wet straw (and, nowadays, coloring agents) so that black smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel. When a ballot has successfully elected a new pope, they are burned ‘clean’ so that white smoke rises over the Vatican.
Soon after a successful election, the Cardinal Protodeacon (the ‘president’ of the conclave) will move to the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica and announce the new pope:
Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum,
Dominum [First Name] Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem [Last Name],
Qui sibi nomen imposuit [Papal Name].
I announce to you a great joy:
We have a Pope!
The most eminent and most reverend Lord,
Lord [First Name] Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church [Last Name],
Who takes for himself the name of [Papal Name].
An elected pope can choose any papal name for himself that he wishes. In the early Church, popes typically used their given name. The first to take a different papal name was Pope John II in 533. His given name was Mercurius, after the Roman god Mercury, and he felt that it would be inappropriate for a pope to be named after a god from Roman mythology. The last pope to retain his given name was Pope Marcellus II in 1501, who was born Marcello Cervini degli Spannochi.
Cardinal Albino Luciani broke with tradition in 1978 by taking a double name, John Paul I, when he was elected to the papacy. He was the first pope in nearly 1,100 years to chose a previously un-used name.
By the way, if we put theology aside and look at the papacy as a purely political office (as sovereign of the Vatican City State), it is completely unique in the world. Since I’m a political science nerd, I find this part absolutely fascinating. The Bishop of Rome is absolute monarch of the Vatican, but his monarchy is not hereditary. No, he is elected by a super-majority vote . . . but that vote is carried out by an ordained body that has been selected by his predecessors, not by the general population of his nation. And his nation is explicitly theocratic. So, if you were going to try to define the papacy in political science terms, it would be something like this: aristocratic-democratic Christian theocratic constitutional monarchy.
So with all that said, I hope you will join with me in praying for the cardinals as they gather to elect a new pope—the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff, and Servant of the Servants of God. May the Holy Spirit guide them in making the right choice. I also hope that you will continue to join with me in prayer for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his retirement.