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The conclave begins


Very soon- it may have happened already- the College of Cardinals will file into the Sistine Chapel chanting the ancient hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus, and begin the process of electing a successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

The  Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations, Fr. Guido Marini, will intone the words, "Extra omnes!" ( "Everybody out!") in Latin, and the doors of the Sistine Chapel will be closed and locked (the word "conclave" is from the Latin for "with a key"), to be opened again only after a new pope has been elected. The 115 cardinals will be sworn to secrecy, though in the past enough details of such elections have leaked out to form the subject matter of books.



As was the case when Pope Benedict was elected, the traditional options of election by acclaimation and by committee are excluded. Only the ordinary process of election by secret ballot is permitted. In principle, any baptized Catholic male may be elected; as a practical matter, it's going to be one of the 115 cardinals taking part in the conclave.

Initally a two-thirds majority plus one is required for election. This may be reduced to a simple majority after twenty-six ballots; the cardinals would, at that point, also have the option of in effect holding a "run-off" between the two leading candidates. After three days, the cardinals also could theoretically vote to change the requirement for election to a simple majority.Three cardinals chosen by lot, called scrutineers, will count the ballots; three others, called revisers, will double-check the counting of each vote. A further three, called infirmarii, will collect the votes of any sick cardinals.

The cardinals may- but are not required to- hold a ballot Tuesday evening. After that, two will be held each morning, and two in the afternoon. After each, the ballots will be burned, with the smoke from the fire being emitted from a chimney easily visible from St. Peter's Square. If no pope has been elected, the ballots traditionally are burned alone, but since this has lead to "false positives" in the past; gray smoke, after all, defeats the whole purpose. To be sure the signal is understood, bells will be rung if the smoke is white.

Each cardinal takes an oath to vote for the man he believes should, in fact, be elected. Each sits upon a throne with a drawn-up canopy above it. Using "disguised handwriting," each fills in a name on a ballot reading, in Latin, "Eligo in Summum Pontificem..." ("I elect as supreme pontiff...") Ballots are placed on a paten (the dish used for the hosts at Communion) and are then each transfered to a sacramental chalice. A cardinal called the "scrutiner" counts the ballots, with the assistance of three other cardinals called "revisers." When each result is announced, the ballots are sewn together with a thread, the needle passing through the word eligio.

On the climactic ballot, as it becomes obvious that a candidate is going to be elected, hands go to the lanyards which deploy the canopies. As the decisive vote is announced, the canopies of all but one of the cardinals are deployed, leaving only the throne of the new pope uncovered.

After each unsuccessful ballot, the ballots will be burned together with straw and a chemical which will intensify the black color of the resulting smoke. The actual election of a new pontiff will be signaled by white smoke ascending from the chapel chimney and the ringing of bells.

Meanwhile, back in the conclave, once a candidate has received the requisite number of votes, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the Dean of the College of Cardinals will the newly elected pope whether he accepts his election. Given an affirmative answer, he asks the new pope by what name he will be known. Peter (due doubtless to the "prophesy" attributed to St. Malachy), which has been interpreted to say that the pope elected by this conclave will be the final one, and will be called "Peter of Rome") Gregory, Pius and John Paul are thought to be the most likely choices this time out.

Three sets of papal vestments- one small, one of medium, and one large- will be ready. The new pope will but one of them on, and after he receives the individual homage of the cardinals, will wait for  Peter Cardinal Tauran of France, lead by a crucifer, to emerge on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square and introduce him with the words, in Latin, "I bring you tidings of great joy: we have a pope! He is the Lord Cardinal....., and will be known by the name......." The new pope will then appear to the crowd below, probably give a brief speech, and deliver his first pontifical blessing.

As the conclave begins, the favorite remains Milan Archbishop Angelo Cardinal Scola, rated at the Irish betting site Paddy Power at 9-4. Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer has moved into the second spot at 4-1. The early favorite, Peter Cardinal Turkson of Ghana, is next at 6-1. Marc Cardinal Ouelette of Canada and Tarcisco Cardinal Bertoni, the Camerlengo of the Roman Catholic church, are each listed at 10-1.

But the field is wide open, and anything is possible. In my memory, only one American cardinal- the late Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Chicago- had been seriously thought of as a candidate for the papacy. But this time Archbishop Sean Cardinal O'Malley of Boston (14-1), Vatican official and former St. Louis archbishop Raymond Cardinal Burke (16-1).and Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York (20-1) all have accumlated sufficient Vatican "cred" to be thought of as potential popes.,

Observers are divided as to whether the cardinals will be looking for a strong manager to get the scandal-ridden Vatican bureaucracy (a clean sweep of which has been claimed to have been Benedict's goal in leaving the papacy), or a strong pastor to guide the church in this increasingly secular and hostile era. 

As an outsider who had  two African roommates in (nominally Lutheran) seminary, one of whom predicted that in the near future missionaries from Africa will come to America to re-evangelize our post-Christian society, I would personally love to see Cardinal Turkson elected. The aggressive and spirited Christianity which is sweeping Africa would provide a wonderful model for our culturally compromised and timid Western church.

But I think the next pope will be Scola, especially since I find it hard to imagine three consecutive non-Italian popes being elected. I think the conclave will take two days (although the cardinals have often managed to surprise everybody in recent years with the speed with which they conduct the process), and that Scola will call himself either Leo XIV, Pius XIII or Gregory XVII.

Why, I'm sure some of you are wondering, would a Lutheran be so interested in the identity of the new pope? Aside from the fact that the process fascinates me, combining as it does my interest in theology, history and politics, for better or for worse the Roman Pope is the single most visible Christian in the world, and the one with the greatest obvious opportunity to make an impact. Imagine, for example, what might happen should a determined pope decide to bring America's rebellious anti-traditional marriage and pro-abortion Catholic politicians to heal.

We all have cause to join the cardinals in praying Veni, Creator Spiritus as the conclave opens, regardless of our denomination.

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