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Of Conclaves and Popes: A Historical Review

Chiara Santomiero - published on 02/22/13

The conclave method for choosing a new bishop of Rome is over 900 years old

Today, Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio containing norms to regulate conclaves and the vacancy of the Apostolic See. This initiative has become necessary due to the fact that the possibility of a Pope abdicating his ministry, while provided for in the Code of Canon Law, is not duly regulated in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, which governs all matters regarding the succession of a Supreme Pontiff. The rules established by Pope Benedict are brand new and take their place side by side with ancient norms.

The rule granting only Cardinals the right and also the duty of electing the Pope is over 900 years old. Pope Nicholas II established this rule in 1059. He forgot, however, to indicate by which majority the Pope was to be elected, and during the next one hundred and twenty elections, opposing groups of Cardinals elected popes and anti-popes. Disorder ensued, and in 1179, a two-thirds majority was established for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff.

Yet it often happened that the Cardinals took far too long to reach this majority. The climax came in 1270, during the so-called Conclave of Viterbo: after a 33 month-long vacancy of the Apostolic See, the inhabitants of the Lazian city locked the Cardinal electors into the great hall of the papal palace and removed part of the roof to persuade them to decide quickly. The newly elected Pope, Gregory X – mindful of the event – instituted the first official Conclave in 1274. He did so in order to guarantee the freedom of the Cardinal electors and to reduce the amount of time it would take to elect a new Pope.

Gregory X established that the Cardinals should meet under lock and key – locked from within and without – with a kind of turnstile to allow food to be passed into the hall. And to persuade them not to linger too long, he established that the amount of food to be given them would progressively be reduced with each passing day, until they were left with only … bread and water!

For the same reason, during the Sede vacante, the revenues of the Cardinals were seized by the Camerlengo – the Cardinal charged with managing this phase of the interregnum – who then gave them to the new Pope.   

The conclave as we know it today is ‘only’ 738 years old. This is the reason why the conclave to be celebrated after Pope Benedict will only be the 75th, even though the Popes number 265. The secret, written ballot is even ‘younger’, dating back to 1621 with Pope Gregory XV.

In 1922, Pope Pius XI (Achille Cardinal Ratti) was elected in the absence of the American Cardinals, who were unable to arrive in time for the vote. He therefore established by motu proprio that the beginning of the conclave, which heretofore had been set at ten days after the beginning of the vacancy of the Apostolic See, was to be increased to fifteen.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI established that only those Cardinals eighty years of age and younger would be granted voting privileges. Though many protested, the norm still remains in force today.

In 1975, the same Pope established the maximum number of Cardinal electors at one hundred and twenty. He also specified that the exact moment when the one chosen becomes Pope is the moment he responds, “Yes, I accept”.

But the location where the conclave was to be held had to wait for the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. In 1996, he promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis. Still in force today, it established that the Conclave was to be held in the Vatican Apostolic Palace’s Sistine Chapel, a setting “where everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God, in whose sight each person will one day be judged.”

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