Fr. Roger J. Landry
Conclave Series for the New Bedford Standard Times
March 12, 2013
Today is an exciting day in Rome, as the conclave to elect the next Pope begins.
The day will begin with the Cardinals’ celebrating Mass on the altar built on top of St. Peter’s tomb, asking God for guidance as they convene to elect Peter’s successor. The first thing Catholics are taught to do about any major decision is to pray, and the most powerful prayer of all, we believe, is the Mass, in which we enter into Jesus’ own prayer from the Last Supper and the Cross.
I will be present inside the Basilica for this Mass, praying alongside and for the Cardinals and for the one among their number who will become the next pope.
This afternoon the Cardinals will again spend most of their time praying. They will enter the Sistine Chapel singing the Litany of Saints, begging for the intercession of all the holy ones that they might do their solemn duty as the saints would in their place.
Upon getting to their places inside the world’s most famous chapel, they will sing the Veni Creator Spiritus, the traditional hymn to the Holy Spirit asking him to illumine their minds, inflame their hearts and fill them with his strength.
This concentration on prayer shows that the conclave is not the Catholic equivalent of the Iowa Caucuses, but a spiritual event. One of the American Cardinals who was present eight years ago for Benedict XVI’s election described the conclave almost as a retreat.
The Cardinals will then pronounce a solemn oath that they will scrupulously follow the conclave rules and keep absolute and perpetual secrecy about everything that relates to the voting.
After that, all non-Cardinals and cameras will leave except the Master of Ceremony and over-80 Cardinal Prosper Gresch, who will give a meditation reminding the Cardinals of their solemn duties. Once his sermon is done, he and the Master of Ceremonies likewise will depart and the doors will be locked behind them. Then the first vote will be taken and the Cardinals will see who the real candidates are.
Commentators have said that conclave is the most fraud-proof way of doing a secret ballot in history. At each morning and afternoon session, three cardinals are randomly chosen to scrutinize each ballot, three to review them, and three to collect those of infirm cardinals.
With each ballot, the voter writes a name, folds the ballot twice, walks up individually toward Michelangelo’s Last Judgment holding the ballot aloft, and swears publicly, “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.”
The oath is taken to speed the election along, by preventing cardinals from casting “courtesy votes” for friends on early ballots.
After all the ballots are put in an urn, the scrutineers count them and announce each name out loud. In order for someone to be elected, he needs the votes of two-thirds of the cardinals, or 77 out of 115.
The ballots are burned through a chimney at the end of every session, together with chemicals causing black smoke if no pope has been chosen and white smoke if he has.
Today there will be one vote taken. Tomorrow, two votes will take place consecutively in the morning and two in the afternoon, and so on through Friday. If no one has been elected by then, the cardinals will pause to pray on Saturday and reconvene on Sunday.
If we see white smoke by tomorrow, one of my former teachers will be walking out in white.
But I anticipate we’re going to be seeing black smoke several times before we hear the words, “Habemus papam.”