Tags: Pope's | Death | Triggers | Scripted | Ritual

Pope's Death Triggers Scripted Ritual

Saturday, 02 April 2005 12:00 AM

Rome's church bells tolled in mourning. Vatican flags were lowered to half staff. Heavy chains blocked the door of the papal palace to signify the interregnum has begun.

It was the start of a process outlined by John Paul in a 1996 document, "Universi Dominici Gregis"("Of the Lord's Whole Flock"), which lays out procedures for Vatican officials in handling a pope's death and sets the voting rules for selecting a successor.

In announcing John Paul's death Saturday night, the Vatican said the document's provisions "have been put in motion."

The papal chamberlain becomes the most important Vatican official during the period without a pontiff. He will destroy the symbols of the pope's authority: the fisherman's ring and the dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters.

He also seals off the pope's bedroom and study, takes charge of the Holy See's property and arranges the funeral and the conclave at which the College of Cardinals will elect a pope.

The cardinals govern the church until a new pope is chosen, but their powers are limited.

Almost all cardinals heading Vatican departments, including the secretary of state, lose their jobs when a pope dies. Power centers inside the Vatican shift and dissolve as the cardinals turn their attention to their most important job — electing a pope.

Since 1059, the cardinals have had the sole responsibility for choosing the pope. Although these "princes of the church" are free to elect any baptized Catholic male, the last time a non-cardinal was elevated to the papacy was 1378.

The pope is buried from four to six days after his death. The conclave must begin between 15 and 20 days after the pontiff dies and is open only to cardinals under age 80.

They meet daily at the Apostolic Palace. At their first meeting, they take a solemn oath to "maintain rigorous secrecy" about the papal election. Anyone who violates this oath risks excommunication.

The word "conclave" comes from the Latin for "with a key," referring to a practice that arose in the 13th century.

In 1243, the Senate and people of Rome broke a year-and-a-half deadlock by locking the cardinals up until they finally elected a new pope. In 1271, the cardinals were not only locked up but also put on a diet of bread and water until they could agree.

The pope chosen in 1271, Gregory X, formalized these drastic measures as conclaves. Despite his efforts, 29 subsequent conclaves lasted more than a month. But no conclave since 1831 has lasted more than four days; the one in 1978 at which John Paul II was elected went just 24 hours.

Although conclaves have grown shorter in modern times, John Paul changed the voting rules to make deadlocks virtually impossible. His rules make a simple majority sufficient to elect a pope if no one gets the traditional two-thirds majority after about 30 rounds of voting.

A veteran of two conclaves himself, John Paul decided to make the cardinals more comfortable. Gone are the cramped, spartan cubicles in the Apostolic Palace, replaced by a new residence at the Vatican. The Domus Santae Marthae has 108 suites and 23 single rooms, all with baths. The rooms are assigned by lot during a conclave.

As head of the papal household, it is the chamberlain's job to make all the arrangements for the conclave.

Under his direction, the Sistine Chapel and the Domus Santae Marthae are sealed off, and the staff, which includes housekeeping and kitchen personnel, two doctors and ordinary clergy to hear confession, is vetted.

Technicians sweep the chapel and the cardinals' quarters for eavesdropping devices. Newspapers, radios, televisions, tape recorders, telephones and cameras are barred. Windows are sealed and curtains are drawn.

When the conclave begins, the cardinals file into the Sistine Chapel in their blood-red robes.

The cardinals, most of whom were appointed by John Paul II, may start voting on the first day if they wish. The ballots are always burned along with chemicals to make the smoke white or black. White signals that a new pontiff has been elected.

Once the decision is made, the protodeacon — a post currently held by Chilean Cardinal Medina Estivez — steps onto the balcony above St Peter's Square and proclaims, "Habemus papam!" — We have a pope!


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Rome's church bells tolled in mourning. Vatican flags were lowered to half staff. Heavy chains blocked the door of the papal palace to signify the interregnum has begun. It was the start of a process outlined by John Paul in a 1996 document, "Universi Dominici...
Saturday, 02 April 2005 12:00 AM
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