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Do all cardinals participate in electing a new pope? No. Only cardinals under the age of 80 at the time of the pope’s death are eligible to vote in papal elections (by order of Pope Paul VI in 1970 and reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II in Universi Dominci Gregis). They are known as the cardinal electors and their number is limited to 120.

Has the election of the pope always been the prerogative of the College of Cardinals? No. Until the fourth century, the election of a pope was similar to that period’s process for electing any bishop. Neighboring bishops, the Roman clergy, and the laity of Rome all participated in the election. Papal elections from the fourth century to the eleventh century were clearly marked by the influence of various temporal rulers, including the Roman emperors and noble families. In 1059, during a Synod of Rome, Pope Nicholas II, issued the decree In nomine domini spelling out that papal electors were to be only the higher clergy of Rome (the cardinals).Pope Alexander III, at the Third Lateran Council of 1179, further decreed that only a two-thirds majority vote of the cardinals could validly elect a pope.

Among the cardinals, who are the key officials? During the Interregnum, two cardinals in particular are assigned special responsibilities: the Camerlengo of Holy Roman Church and the Dean of the College of Cardinals.

Who is the Camerlengo and what are his duties? Upon  a papal vacancy, the Camerlengo immediately becomes the administrator of the Church’s property and finances during the transition. He also heads meetings of the Particular Congregation. Among some of the duties assigned to the Camerlengo are officially ascertaining and certifying the pope’s death, sealing the pope’s study and bedroom, and destroying the Fisherman’s Ring. The current Camerlengo, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in April 2007. Born in 1934, he served as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1995-2002, when he was appointed Archbishop of Genoa. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2003 and named Vatican Secretary of State in 2006.

Since the Camerlengo certifies the pope’s death, is he the person who officially initiates everything that follows? In a way, yes. Today, modern medical technology easily confirms that death has occurred, but in ages past that determination was less scientific. In a ceremony that was used into the twentieth century, the Camerlengo would lightly tap the forehead of the pope three times with a small silver mallet, calling out his baptismal name. It was believed that no one could remain asleep at the sound of his baptismal name. Failure to rouse the pope resulted in the simple declaration: “The pope is dead.”

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What is the Fisherman’s Ring and why is its destruction significant? The Fisherman’s Ring is a signet ring engraved with the image of St. Peter fishing from a boat and encircled with the name of the reigning pope. It is not worn by the pope. Rather, it is used to seal important documents. With its destruction, the power of the deceased pope is symbolically extinguished. In what has traditionally been a private ceremony, a small group of cardinals, together with members of the papal household and the Swiss Guard, enter the pope’s apartments to witness the ring’s destruction. After the ring has been inspected by those present, the Camerlengo defaces the ring with a silver knife. After a second inspection, the ring is placed on a lead block and struck with a silver mallet by the Camerlengo until it is destroyed.

Who is the Dean of the College of Cardinals and what are his responsibilities? The Dean of the College of Cardinals is a senior cardinal elected to his permanent position by the full College and approved by the pope. During the sede vacante, he presides over the General Congregations and serves as the first among equals within the College. He is responsible for notifying international leaders and the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See of the pope’s death. The Dean is also responsible for notifying the other members of the College and calling them to Rome. The current Dean, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was born in 1927, elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1991, and confirmed as Dean in April 2005.Since Cardinal Sodano is over 80, he will not participate in the conclave to elector a successor to Benedict XVI. The Sub-Dean, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, is also over 80, leaving the Dean’s duties within the conclave (such as asking the newly elected pope if he accepts his election and what name he chooses) to the senior cardinal present, Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

What is the conclave? The word “conclave” has two meanings. First, it refers to the physical space where the cardinals meet to carry out the election of the new pope. Consistent with the word’s Latin origin, cum clave or “with a key,” the conclave has traditionally been a locked area to ensure the sequestration of the electors.The word “conclave” has also come to refer to the meeting of the cardinals at which a new pope is elected.The practice of carrying out the papal election in conclave originated in 1268. Eighteen cardinals had assembled in the Italian town of Viterbo, where Pope Clement IV had died, to elect his successor. Two years and nine months later, no pope had been elected, and the frustrated townspeople decided to force a decision by walling up the doors of the meeting place. The cardinals’ only contact with the outside was a small opening through which food was passed. Eventually, the townspeople even removed the roof of the building, exposing the electors to the elements. Pope Gregory X finally was elected on September 1, 1271, ending the longest papal election.

Where is the conclave? Balloting for the new pope takes place in the Sistine Chapel. Preparations begin almost immediately after the death of the pope, overseen by the Camerlengo. The Sistine Chapel, which is 133 feet long, 45 feet wide, and 65 feet high, is configured to accommodate a desk and leather chair for each cardinal elector. A table is set in front of the altar where the secret ballots will be counted.

Have papal elections always taken place in Rome? It was customary for the election of a new pontiff to take place in the city where his predecessor had died. Pope Gregory X, elected in 1272 after the longest transition in papal history (see above), formally decreed that the cardinals must assemble for papal elections within ten days after the pope’s death, in the city where the pope died, and with the cardinal-electors having no contact with the outside world.

Is housing for the cardinals part of the conclave? Yes. In elections prior to the conclave of 2005, living quarters were constructed in available space in the Apostolic Palace which could be sealed from the outside world. In 1978, most electors’ “cells” were constructed by stretching canvas over a metal framework and were sparsely furnished with only a bed, a wash stand, a crucifix and a kneeler. Many did not have private baths.Universi Dominici Gregis directs that the cardinal electors are now to stay in Domus Sanctae Marthae (St. Martha’s House), a five-story, 130-room guest house near St. Peter’s which opened in 1996.[7] Because St. Martha’s is not adjacent to the Sistine Chapel, thereby requiring transport between the two sites, the strict conclave enclosure is no longer possible. Consequently, Pope John Paul II included specific provisions for ensuring the segregation of the electors while in transit to and from the Sistine Chapel.

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Who is allowed inside the conclave? The list of those allowed inside the conclave is very limited. In addition to the cardinal electors, the only other “conclavists” allowed to remain include: the secretary of the College of Cardinals; the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations; two masters of ceremonies; two papal sacristans; a cleric to assist the Dean of the College; a number of priests for hearing confessions; two doctors; a few staff for preparing meals and housekeeping; and a personal aide for any cardinal so ill or incapacitated that he needs one.  All must be approved by the Particular Congregation and be sworn to absolute secrecy about anything they learn or observe during the conclave.

Is it true that the limitation on those allowed inside the conclave, and the whole idea of segregating the cardinals, is to ensure the confidentiality of the process? Yes. In keeping with tradition, the secrecy of the proceedings is scrupulously guarded. The mandate for secrecy is repeated several times in Universi Dominici Gregis. In fact, the cardinals are required to take two separate oaths of secrecy at different times during the sede vacante. Under Pope Paul VI’s 1975 constitution, the Sistine Chapel was cleared, searched for listening devices, and the entire conclave area sealed both inside and out. With lodging now provided at St. Martha’s House, the provisions for sealing the conclave have been dropped. Provisions for sweeping the Sistine Chapel and the surrounding areas for audiovisual equipment that could record or broadcast the proceedings are retained, however. Likewise, earlier rules prohibiting electors from sending or receiving mail, using a telephone, television or radio, or reading newspapers are also retained. The secrecy rules extend to the period after the election unless the new pope gives explicit permission to disclose information.

When does the conclave begin? Fifteen to 20 days after the death of the pope, the cardinals are directed to gather in St. Peter’s Basilica for a votive Mass Pro eligendo Papa invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the task that awaits them Later, the cardinal electors reassemble and process to the Sistine Chapel.  After taking an oath to observe the rules laid out in John Paul’s constitution, to observe absolute secrecy, and to refuse any civil interference with the election, the order extra omnes] is given and everyone not authorized to remain in the conclave must leave.

When does the actual election begin? Voting may begin immediately after the Sistine Chapel has been cleared, if a majority of the electors so desire.

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