The transition the Church is about to go through will in many ways resemble the papal elections of 1978 and 2005. There are rules governing such a transition, of course, but there will also be one glaring difference: though Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the conclave to elect his successor, a fact confirmed today by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, his presence will be strongly felt.
Pope Benedict’s abdication will take effect on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 8 PM Rome time, at which point the Chair of Peter will be vacant. He will continue to be active as Pope up until that point, delivering two more Wednesday general audiences, including one for Ash Wednesday this week, and two more Sunday Angelus addresses. He is scheduled to bless and impose ashes during Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on the first day of Lent. On the evening of the first Sunday of Lent, Feb. 17, he will begin his participation in the yearly Spiritual Exercises for the Roman Curia in the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Apostolic Palace, concluding the following Saturday, Feb. 23. And then, less than a week later, the Church will be sede vacante.
Universi Dominici Gregis, the apostolic constitution on the election of a Pope issued by Bl. John Paul II in 1996, sets out the protocol for the interregnum and election. We present here highlights of a summary that appears on the website of the Archdiocese of Baltimore:
1. Most Vatican officials will cease to exercise the ministry in their curial posts. The College of Cardinals governs the Church for dealing with ordinary business and matters that cannot be postponed, as well as preparing everything for the election of a new Pope.
2. Once the cardinals worldwide are informed that the Chair of Peter is vacant, they come to Rome to meet for daily preparatory congregations. On the day they arrive, they swear an oath to “observe exactly and faithfully all the norms contained” in Universi Dominici Gregis and “to maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff.”
3. Two “ecclesiastics” who are “known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority” present meditations on the “problems facing the Church…and on the need for careful discernment in choosing the new Pope.”
4. There may be no more than 120 electors at the conclave, and they must be under 80 before the sede vacante.
5. As they process from the Pauline Chapel into the Sistine, the cardinal electors, wearing choir dress invoke the assistance of the Holy Spirit singing Veni Creator.
6. Each cardinal elector takes an oath while touching the Gospels to “promise, pledge and swear that whichever of us by divine disposition is elected Roman Pontiff will commit himself faithfully to carrying out the munus Petrinum of Pastor of the Universal Church, and will not fail to affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and the liberty of the Holy See.” They also swear to secrecy and to “never lend support” to interference from groups that might want to intervene in the election of the Pope.
7. The Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations gives the order “extra omnes,” and those not participating must leave. The only non-electors allowed to stay are the master of papal liturgical celebrations and the ecclesiastic chosen to preach on the grave duty that lies ahead.
8. Two-thirds of the votes are required. There are two votes per day. If there is no election after three days, voting is suspended for one day of prayer, informal discussion and a brief spiritual exhortation by a senior cardinal.
9. When one of the cardinals is elected Pope, the Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals asks the candidate whether he freely accepts the charge of the Petrine ministry. If the candidate declines, voting continues. If he accepts, he is then is asked by what name he wishes to be called. The Cardinal Electors then make an act of homage and obedience, followed by an act of thanksgiving. The senior Cardinal Deacon announces the election and proclaims his name, and the new pope imparts the apostolic blessing from the balcony of the Vatican Basilica.
10. After his inaugural Mass, the Pope takes possession of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the Cathedral of Rome).
11. A key player in all these ceremonies is the Camerlengo, a role currently held by Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State. Among his duties is to break the papal ring (the Ring of the Fisherman) to prevent any forgery, and to seal the papal apartments to prevent tampering of documents. (It appears that under the present circumstances, the Ring of the Fisherman will not be broken.)
Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said today that Benedict is not likely to play any role in the “interregnum,” Catholic News Service reported. Universi Dominici Gregis states that cardinals above the age of 80 may participate in preparatory meetings but may not participate in the conclave itself.
Father Lombardi said that when the abdication is effective, Pope Benedict will move to the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, but that when renovation work on a former convent of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican, Mater Ecclesia, is complete, the Holy Father will move there “for a period of prayer and reflection.” He said he will not take part in the conclave to elect his successor. Father Lombardi said it is likely that a new pope will be elected in time for Holy Week and Easter. Palm Sunday this year falls on March 24.
The fact that Benedict is still alive “will have no direct impact on the outcome of the conclave,” said Church observer and author Russell Shaw. “The most you can say is that a few electors might be moved not to cast a vote that they think would somehow hurt his feelings, but even that's a bit of a stretch.” Shaw speculates that the conclave may run “a bit longer than usual, indicating that there is no one, overwhelmingly obvious candidate.”
The big question on most people’s minds now is who may succeed Pope Benedict, and Church watchers are dissecting the current makeup of the College of Cardinals.
“Europeans are still the largest bloc, and Italians the largest subset within that group,” Shaw points out. “Still, there has been enough talk lately (including by Cardinals) about a non-European Pope that I wouldn't be surprised to see that happen. In that case, although I have no prediction to make, I also wouldn't be surprised if the choice were Cardinal [Marc] Ouellet [Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and a native of Canada]. He's not a third-worlder, to be sure, but he's from outside Europe and has had both pastoral and Roman experience.”
Cardinal Ouellet, the former Archbishop of Quebec, served as a professor and seminary rector in Colombia.
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, who was a doctoral student under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s direction at the University of Regensburg, pointed out that the next Pope will be the first one who was not part of the Second Vatican Council. Both Popes John Paul and Benedict took part in the council and have worked to implement it.
“I think there’s no clear candidate as there was in 2005,” Father Fessio says. “Certainly, Cardinal Ratzinger was superior and better known than anyone else who was potentially Pope, but that’s not going to be the case this time.”
Father Fessio finds that many of the current members of the College of Cardinals, “for good or for ill, didn’t get there without being pretty good administrators and judges of people. It’s unlikely they’re going to vote for someone they don’t know, either personally or someone who’s recommended by a close personal friend. And therefore the cardinal of Manila or Nairobi is probably not going to be elected because he’s not well known among other cardinals. I think it will be someone who is either in the Roman Curia or makes a lot of visits to the Roman Curia and meets other cardinals.”
Michael Miller, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, called the Pope’s abdication an act of humility and magnanimity. “We live in a world where people are very reticent to let go of anything,” Miller says. He predicts that the spirit of the conclave will be different from previous ones because the Church won’t be mourning a death, but there will be somberness, nonetheless.
As the Cardinals ponder their choice for Benedict’s successor, Miller says, the New Evangelization that was promoted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI will be at the fore. Benedict contributed to that New Evangelization with “deep intellectual work” on the crisis of truth and the “dictatorship of relativism,” the crisis of reason (in his address at Regensburg, he spoke of the need for reason to be “rehabilitated,” purified by faith), the importance of beauty, and the importance of having a friendship with Christ.
“He’s set out the intellectual and spiritual framework for the New Evangelization,” Miller says. The question in the conclave, he predicts, will be “Who can carry this out?” Qualities that will be important for the next pope to have, he speculates, are the same ones Benedict brought to the papacy: prayerfulness, a desire for personal holiness, humility and “intellectual and moral clarity, in a world that needs those things.”
Both Shaw and Father Fessio point out that most, if not all the cardinal electors were elevated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and so tend to reflect their viewpoints. Beyond that, will Pope Benedict try to influence the way things go in the conclave?
“He’d be absolutely scrupulous in avoiding that,” Father Fessio insists. “He believes in the Holy Spirit. He’s not a political person; he doesn’t go in for intrigue. He wants the Holy Spirit to choose his successor and he knows he’s not the Holy Spirit.”
It’s true that Pope Benedict has made a number of reforms in matters dear to his heart, such as in the area of the liturgy, Father Fessio agrees, “but he’s always been a very serene person. He’s confident in the gifts God has given him and he recognizes that his role is not to be the one to make the next Pope. He probably has a couple in mind he’d like but I doubt he’d even mention that.”
Adds Father Fessio, “Of course, the cardinals may reelect him.”