By the time the 115 cardinals who will elect the next Pope travel the short distance from their Vatican City residence to the Apostolic Palace at 3:45 Tuesday afternoon, they will have clear favorites in mind.
Their discernment process — a mixture of personal research, discussion and prayer — over the past few weeks appears to have been conclusive: The cardinals’ “unanimous” decision last Friday to begin the conclave points to the likelihood that their minds are made up. The consensus, therefore, is that this conclave could be relatively brief and may well be over by the end of the week.
There’s “no reason to believe it will take long,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told journalists Saturday. The average length of a conclave over the past century has been three days.
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At 4:30 p.m. in the Pauline Chapel, a magnificent 16th century place of worship containing the last two paintings of Michelangelo, the cardinals will begin singing Veni Creator, the Latin hymn invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, before processing into the Sistine Chapel.
As they enter the site of the conclave — swept of bugging devices and complete with specially furnished chairs, tables, and an elevated floor — the magnitude and weight of their responsibility will be all too real as Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” towers above them.
Having taken their places, the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, will administer the oath to the electors. The cardinals must “promise, pledge and swear” that whoever is elected “will commit himself faithfully to carrying out” the Petrine ministry and they are reminded of the rules governing secrecy.
Total confidentiality regarding what transpires during the election, and any violation of that confidentiality, is taken extremely seriously. The cardinals are forbidden any contact with the outside world — no newspapers or publications of any kind, nor can they follow news bulletins via cellphone, tablet, or any other device that has become commonplace since they last met in 2005.
Pope Benedict XVI recently added the penalty of automatic excommunication to anyone violating this norm of confidentiality.
After Cardinal Sodano has administered the oath, the electors will then individually walk to the center of the chapel and personally take the oath, while placing their hand on the page of Sacred Scripture.
When the last of the Electors has sworn this oath, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, Msgr. Guido Marini, gives the order “extra omnes,” (everyone out). An assigned preacher, 87-year-old Maltese Cardinal Prospero Grech will share a meditation, directing the minds of the Grand Electors to the grave task before them, and on the need to act with right intention for the good of the Catholic Church.
He then leaves and the 115 electors and the Dean of the College of Cardinals are now completely alone.
The papal election consists of four “scrutinies” (votes) a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, except on Tuesday’s first vote when there will be only one. Voting is conducted in secret, each elector writing the name of his choice — if possible in handwriting not easily identifiable as his — so that the completed paper can be folded lengthwise.
Each cardinal elector, holding his completed and folded ballot aloft between thumb and forefinger, and in view of all the others, then takes it to the large chalice-like urn placed in front of three “scrutineers” — three cardinal-electors chosen earlier by lot by the junior Cardinal Deacon, American Cardinal James Harvey.
There he stops and declares aloud: “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.” After placing his ballot in the urn, he then bows in reverence and returns to his place. Once all 115 have voted, the scrutineers, seated at a table in front of the altar, add up all the votes that each individual has received.
This process, too, is full of ritual. The first scrutineer takes a ballot, unfolds it, and notes down the name of the person for whom the vote was cast. He passes it in silence to the second scrutineer, who likewise notes the name written on the ballot, before passing it to the third scrutineer, who reads it out in a clear voice. He then inserts a needle through the word Eligo (I elect…) on each ballot, drawing a thread through to be knotted securely at both ends, so that they’re not misplaced. The sum of votes obtained by the different cardinals is calculated and recorded on a separate sheet of paper.
If anyone has obtained two-thirds of the votes cast plus one (in this election, 77 votes), then he has been validly elected Pope. Otherwise another vote is held. All ballot papers will be burned at the end of the morning or afternoon session (noon and 7 p.m.), or after the first ballots in the morning and afternoon if a pope is elected (around 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.). White smoke appears if a Pope is elected; black if there isn’t.
Cardinals may speak with one another between votes and during the evening — an opportunity to learn more about candidates and how to vote. The electors will spend much of their free time reading and talking. Cooks at their Casa Santa Martha residence in the Vatican provide their meals, and a team of medics is on hand in case any of the cardinals fall ill. A total of 90 auxiliary staff is employed during the conclave and all must take an oath of secrecy.
The first vote is significant because the cardinals will get the “lay of the land” in a concrete way. Thereafter, some candidates will gain support; others will lose it. And if the leading candidates in the first vote fail to win a two-thirds majority after several ballots, support will be transferred to someone else.
John XXIII once noted how candidates bob up and down during votes “like peas in a pot of boiling water.” A cardinal may keep climbing up the ballots ladder until he is near the 66 percent mark, but then fade as people conclude he hasn’t the numbers and switch to someone else. He may then later re-emerge when other candidates similarly lose favor.
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Italian Vatican observers are predicting that Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, is likely to lead in the first ballot, possibly acquiring between 30 and 40 votes. But American Cardinals Sean O’Malley and Timothy Dolan, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer also are expected to poll well in early voting, possibly acquiring anywhere from 12 to 20 or more votes.
Other cardinals to receive a scattering of votes in the first scrutiny could be Cardinals Peter Turkson from Ghana, Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines, and the Hungarian, Peter Erdo.
But what goes on in the minds of the cardinals is all mere speculation. The Church believes the Holy Spirit will be at work, and is known for springing surprises.
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