How the conclave makes the pope — and why we should rejoice

The time for discussions – often intense – over the needs of the Church and the times is over. Now the cardinals enter the conclave to choose who, among them, should take the helm.conclave3

Putting together information shared with journalists yesterday by the Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, and some leaks to Italian newspapers this morning, curial governance has again emerged as a strong theme, including the issue of financial transparency and management of the Vatican Bank, the so-called ‘Vatileaks’ affair, as well as allegations of sexual impropriety. There is a strong desire for the next pope to get a grip; and a desire, too, for greater ‘collegiality’ – meaning the question of relations between Rome and the bishops.

conclaveMassBut it is misleading to suggest that the cardinals are looking for a good governor or administrator. As Cardinal Angelo Sodano, presiding this morning’s papal election Mass in St Peter’s, made clear in his homily, they are looking, firstly, for a pastor, an evangeliser and an apostle – someone who reminds the world of Jesus, and who can take his message to the far corners of the earth; a pope who builds the unity of the Body of Christ, and gives his life in loving service to others.

That is the pope they want. And they want the curia to serve and support his mission, and not be a distraction from it.

conclave1The cardinals now enter the conclave to elect that pope, from among them. The oldest election by secret ballot may seem, to some, arcane – a system wrapped in secrecy, mystery, and rituals, and carefully regulated by norms most recently laid down by Pope John Paul II and modified by Benedict XVI.

Yet its many elements are designed to enable a careful discernment in freedom; and the history of the conclave is one of constant modifications and changes to improve the quality of that discernment. Hence, for example, Pope John Paul II’s decision to build the comfortable Vatican guest house where the cardinals will stay until the end of the conclave: in previous papal elections, the discomfort of makeshift cells with camp beds proved a distraction, especially for the more infirm.

The ‘secrecy’ of the conclave—enforced by the solemn oaths taken before the voting begins, mobile network jammers, and the burning of the ballots –- is, in reality, a guarantee not just of confidentiality but of freedom. It is designed to allow the pope to emerge from an intense discussion and negotiation uncontaminated by external pressures, pandering to crowds and interest groups, and other forms of politicking. The history of papal elections can be seen as one long attempt to achieve that freedom.

conclave1The secrecy comes, in other words, not from any desire to avoid transparency, but to ensure that the pope is elected for the single, pure reason that, in the view of the cardinals, he will best serve God’s Church. The cardinals choose him, in other words, believing that he is the choice of the Holy Spirit.

The way cardinals vote is designed to ensure this. While the discussions and negotiation happen over meals and in rest periods back in the Domus Sancta Marthae, the voting itself takes place in the Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s depictions of the theological drama of the Last Judgement. After casting their vote, each cardinal declares, before a Crucifix, that he has voted according to his conscience.

conclave4The cardinals who took part in the conclave of 2005 have spoken of the solemnity of the undertaking. Their choir dress, and the prayerfulness of the gathering – which takes place mostly in silence – make the voting process akin to liturgy. After each has cast his vote, he stands in front of the Crucifix and the painting of the Last Judgement and invites Jesus to judge him that he has elected according to his conscience.

IMG_8095“The most difficult, frightening (moment) is when you go with your ballot paper in your hand and hold it up in front of the altar and say, ‘I call on the Lord Jesus, who will be my judge, to witness that I am voting for the one I believe to be worthy’,” says Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, South Africa. “That’s really a moment of intense emotion, faith … all these emotions come together at that point. If I’m voting for unworthy reasons I’m actually asking Jesus to judge me, to condemn me, so it’s a very, very solemn moment.”

“When everybody is casting their votes, we are praying, so it is like a big cenacle of prayer”, recalled Cardinal Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucicalpa (Honduras), adding: “I wish all the elections in the world could be like that: in an atmosphere of prayer.”

How long will it take? The absence of one or two dominant papabili – the best guess is that today’s first ballot will show support for at least 10 contenders – suggest that this will not be a short conclave.

IMG_8208But judging by the history of conclaves in the last hundred years, many of which have also started with a relatively open field, it is unlikely to last more than two or three days, tonight’s vote excluded. Because a new pope requires two-thirds of the cardinals’ votes – that is, 77 out of the 115 voting in this conclave – the focus is on achieving that result swiftly. Because the balloting after tonight’s first vote takes place four times a day — twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon – it allows the cardinals to achieve progress fairly quickly.

The shortest ballots in recent times – the 1939 election of Pius XII in 1939; the first of 1978, electing John Paul I; or that of 2005, which produced Benedict XVI – all had a single clear forerunner and were over within four ballots. The delays in the longer elections – that of 1922 (Pius XI), which took 14 ballots, or that of 1958 (John XXII) which took 11 – were the result of strong divisions within the College of Cardinals, between liberals and conservatives.

No such obvious blocs exist in the current College. The best guess, then, must be that while this conclave will not be short, there is little reason to suppose it will go beyond the nine ballots which will have taken place by Thursday evening.fumata-bianca

The conclave is a unique system, which captures something of the spirit of the Upper Room in which the disciples gathered in the period of the early Church (and where ballots, too, were used.) It is designed to achieve consensus; and in the business of voting, and working to reach the necessary majority, there is a special dynamic involved, one designed to ensure that the pope is not the creature of this or that group, but the product of 115 men voting according to their conscience, open the the Holy Spirit.

Hence the expression attributed to Cardinal Giuseppe Siri: Il Papa si fa in Conclave — “the Pope is made in the Conclave.”

Papal elections, especially in past centuries, have often made it very hard for an authentic discernment in freedom to take place. For several centuries, most cardinals came from families of popes, or received their office in recognition of secular, not ecclesiastical, service. There were conclaves manipulated by foreign powers, or disrupted by revelries; the eighteenth century, in particular, saw papal elections in which it is very hard to see how the Holy Spirit could have had any role.

And there have been conclaves in more modern times dominated by passionate rivalries between different theological and ecclesiological visions.

But this conclave, like that of 2005, is largely free of those obstacles.

When the entire College is gathered, made up of senior church leaders from all corners of an increasingly global church; when their discussions have been honest and searching; when they have had time to get to know each other, and discern the profile of the next pope; and when the College is free from major theological or political divisions, there is no reason to suppose that the pope who emerges on the balcony will be any other than God’s elect.

That’s why, whatever his age or nationality, and whatever name he bears, he will be a cause of rejoicing.

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