December 2, 2016

Electing a pope: a cardinal’s most important role

By Natalie Hoefer

“Becoming a cardinal, as much as I understand it, is an additional invitation to serve. … Perhaps God thinks I don’t love the Church enough. So he’s given me an even more profound way to love it more.”

Such is Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin’s view of his elevation to the College of Cardinals. Of all the additional ways in which he’ll now serve and love the Church more as a cardinal, the most “profound” is his role in electing a new pope.

Pope Francis is 79 years old. Papal retirement is now a proven precedent. Cardinal Tobin is 64, well below the conclave age-cutoff of 80. These facts all point to the likelihood that he will be involved in electing a new pope at some point, perhaps more than once.

What will that process look like for Cardinal Tobin and the other 119 cardinal electors? And what are some of the more obscure facts surrounding this most important service of the cardinal-electors?

Rituals, rules and results

If the pope dies, the first action of the cardinals is the “Novendiales,” the “nine days” of mourning during which each cardinal offers a daily Mass for the repose of the soul of the pope.

Within 15-20 days of a pope’s death or resignation, the cardinals must gather in Rome for the conclave to elect a new pope.

On the morning the conclave begins, Cardinal Tobin and the other cardinals gather in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to celebrate a “Votive Mass for the Election of a Pope.”

In the afternoon, the cardinal-electors process solemnly into the Sistine Chapel chanting a hymn calling upon the Holy Spirit. After oaths to secrecy, some ceremonies and a meditation, all but the cardinal-electors and four assistants are allowed to be present in the Sistine Chapel during the conclave, and those four must leave during votes.

While the elected pope must simply be a practicing Catholic male, not even necessarily a priest, in the past 600 years the elected pope has been a cardinal-elector. He must gain a two-thirds majority vote from the 120 cardinal-electors to be chosen.

From there, rules abound as to how many ballots can be taken over how many days before a break is mandated, with black smoke being emitted from a chimney in the Sistine Chapel after each unsuccessful vote. If a pope is not elected after so many days and ballots, then he may be elected by an absolute majority.

A successful ballot is indicated by issuing white smoke from the chimney and the ringing of the bells in St. Peter’s Basilica. The new pope is announced when a cardinal steps out onto the central balcony of the basilica and calls out “Habemus papam”—“We have a pope.” He then announces the name of the man elected and the papal name that he has chosen. Some minutes later, the new pope steps out on the balcony to greet and bless the crowd.

Fascinating facts

Enough particulars of the process—the obscure facts are more fascinating.

For instance, where would Cardinal Tobin and his confreres eat, sleep and socialize when they’re not voting in the Sistine Chapel?

The answer is the Domus Marthae Sanctae, the Vatican clergy guesthouse which includes the suite where Pope Francis chooses to reside instead of in the Apostolic Palace. The guesthouse was built in 1996, has five-stories, 106 suites, 22 single rooms and one apartment.

The longest conclave lasted nearly three years, from November 1268 to September 1271. During that time, three cardinal-electors died and one resigned.

Not so with the shortest conclave in history, which lasted just 10 hours in October of 1503.

Those, however, are the extremes. According to an article about the See of Peter on the Eternal Word Television Network website, the average conclave over the last century ends on the afternoon of the third day, after about eight ballots.

As one of 120 cardinal-electors, Cardinal Tobin theoretically stands a 1-in 120 chance of being elected pope. Looking at history alone, however, the odds are not in his favor. Out of 266 popes, Pope Francis is the first pope ever elected from the Americas, and only the 11th non-European pope.

If Cardinal Tobin were elected pope, his odds of becoming a saint increase sharply—out of the 264 deceased popes, 80 are now saints, making the odds one-in-three. There are also 14 popes in various stages on the path to sainthood from Servant of God to Blessed.

But Cardinal Tobin would likely state that such statistics put the cart so far before the horse that the horse doesn’t know there’s a cart.

True, in Cardinal Tobin’s Oct. 10 press conference, he noted that “the most important thing [cardinals] do is … elect a successor” when a pope dies or retires. But given his connection with Pope Francis, he would probably prefer to push talk of conclaves and future popes aside.

Rather, Cardinal Tobin is likely much more focused on his latest opportunity to “love the Church more”—by preparing to leave his “beloved people” of central and southern Indiana, and assume his responsibilities as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. †

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