How to elect a Pope: Assuming the papacy

The pope’s resignation is the first in six centuries. But happens now? Photo: Benedict is the first to resign in office in more than 600 years. / AP File Photo

HONOLULU, February 11, 2013 – Pope Benedict shocked the world this morning with an announcement of his resignation, effective February 28, 2013.

Speaking in Latin to a gathering of Cardinals, Pope Benedict announced “in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of the bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter.”

At 85 years old, Benedict is the first to resign in office in some six centuries. Known formerly as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict was elected in 2005 as the 265th person to hold the office and the first German to hold the office in half a millennia.

The selection of a successor is guided by the 1996 Universi Dominici Gregis Apostolic Constitution set forth by Pope John Paul II. According to the UDG, while the Apostolic See is vacant, the government of the Church is “entrusted to the College of Cardinals solely for the dispatch of ordinary business and matters which cannot be postponed … and for the preparation of the everything necessary for the election of the new Pope.”

The UDG also specifies that “During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, laws issued by the Roman Pontiffs can in no way be corrected or modified, nor can anything be added or subtracted, nor a dispensation can be given even from a part of them, especially with regard to the procedures governing the election of the Supreme Pontiff.”

The process of electing a new Pope begins with Conclave, the meeting of cardinal electors.  Any cardinal who reaches the age of 80 before the day the Pope’s resignation or death is excluded from the election. A maximum of 120 electors will cast their vote for the future leader of the Church.

Once voting begins, the election is carried out in three phases. During the first phase, Pre-Scrutiny, electoral administrative officers are elected by lot from among the cardinal electors and ballots are issued. Scrutineers receive and count ballots before an altar, Infirmarii collect ballots from sick persons if applicable and Revisers check ballots and notes made by the Scrutineers, to ensure that all tasks have been completed according to procedure.

During the second phase, Scrutiny, voting is opened and “Each Cardinal elector, in order of precedence, having completed and folded his ballot, holds it up so that it can be seen and carries it to the altar, at which point the Scrutineers stand and upon which there is placed a receptacle, covered by a plate, for receiving the ballots. Having reached the altar, the Cardinal elector says aloud the following oath: I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one before God I think should be elected.”

Ballots are then mixed by shaking several times and then counted. The last Scrutineer as he reads individual ballots pierces each one with a needle through the word Eligo (elect) and strings it on a thread. After all ballots are read, the ends of the thread is tied off and the ballots are placed aside, initiating the third and final phase, Post-Scrutiny. During this phase, if it is found that a candidate has received a 2/3rds majority of the vote, they are selected as the next Pope. If not, the process will be repeated. Should no pope be selected after thirteen days, the electors have the option of an election by simple majority. After each vote, ballots are burned and smoke rises from a chimney over the Vatican Palace. If no pope is selected, the smoke is black; if there is a pope, the smoke is white.

After a pope is selected, a meeting occurs in which he is asked by the Cardinal Dean whether or not he accepts the office of Supreme Pontiff and what new name he wishes to be called by. Cardinals then congratulate the new pope and the oldest cardinal in conclave announces from the balcony above St. Peter’s Square “Habemus papam” or “We have a pope.”

In Hawaii, reaction to Benedict’s resignation sparked alarm and sadness among local Catholics. “I am still reeling from this shocking news. I love this Pope so much,” said faithful Honolulu follower and blogger Esther Gefroh. “This was not an easy decision for Pope Benedict to make. I know his concern for Holy Mother Church was always foremost in his mind, heart and soul.”

Others understood, but were still deeply shocked by the suddenness of Benedict’s surprise announcement. “I have to respect [Pope Benedict’s] decision of being honest about his inability to have the mind and strength to fulfill his duties,” said local Catholic, Laura Grace D’Angeli. “He is being honest and that is what Jesus asks of us. I would never second guess our holy father. His staying in the truth is setting yet another example of what is asked of us Catholics by God. If he feels he can no longer fulfill his duties, who are we to judge him?”

President Obama, in response to the resignation announced in a written statement this morning that “On behalf of Americans everywhere, Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.”

More information about the protocols and traditions regarding the election of a new pope can be seen on the Vatican website in English, here.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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