Photo by Michael Swan

Conclave not just an election, it's a liturgy

  • March 9, 2013

Updated 03/11/13 - Updates throughout

ROME - Elections are conducted differently in every country. Brazil insists on electronic voting machines while Canada sticks with paper ballots. In North Korea there's just one candidate and in Kenya half the population is running.

Only in the Vatican is voting a prayer. In all the talk of politics and front-runners and leaks to the Italian newspapers, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a papal conclave is a liturgy — just like a baptism or a wedding in any Catholic Church.

"A conclave is an act of God. If it's an act of God you worship God," explained Catholic University of America liturgy professor Fr. Kevin Irwin at a technical briefing for reporters in the North American College near the Vatican.

The liturgy of the conclave places everything that happens when the cardinals are voting inside the Sistine Chapel in a prayer context, said Irwin.

"This is a prayer from the beginning to end. It's not about how to count your hanging chads," Irwin said.

The fact that elections for leadership in the Church are a process of prayer can be traced all the way back to the Acts of The Apostles. When the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem to elect a replacement for Judas after his suicide they prayed together before choosing Matthias (Acts 1:18-26). But the actual rituals that will begin Tuesday March 12 with Mass in St. Peter's Basilica aren't quite so ancient.

The present form of the conclave liturgy can be traced back to 1978. The book of the conclave ministry along with the rite of papal funerals were published in 1998 with the approval of Pope John Paul II. A further ritual book covering the inauguration of the petrine ministry was approved by Pope Benedict XVI and published in 2005.

Though there's a certain truth to the popular notion that the rites and liturgies of the Vatican are ancient artifacts dug up from the early Church, people shouldn't be too surprised to learn that conclave liturgies have evolved and continue to change with history, said Irwin. As recently as 1799-1800 a papal conclave was held in Venice to choose Pope Pius VII.

"There are still changes being made (to the conclave liturgy)," Irwin told The Catholic Register. "This was not given in a Glad bag after the Last Supper. It gets adapted."

The principal author of the current version of the conclave liturgy, Archbishop Piero Marini, asked journalists for a mature understanding of the idea that the Holy Spirit guides a papal conclave. It isn't a magical process.

"The human and divine come together," said Marini, who is president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses and for 20 years was Master of Pontifical Celebrations for Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

While most of the conclave liturgy happens behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel, that doesn't make it an exclusive, secret rite, said Marini. "It's an invitation to the entire Church," he said through a translator.

As the cardinals pray and vote, Catholics around the world pray with them. The conclave liturgy on Tuesday will start in a way quite familiar to Catholics — with a Mass.

"There's nothing really extraordinary about that Mass," said Irwin. "It's like a Sunday Mass."

After Tuesday's Mass the Cardinals will move to the Casa Santa Marta, where they will be staying during the conclave, for lunch. Phase two of the liturgy begins with the 115 cardinal electors forming a procession behind a book of the Gospels from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel. As they walk the cardinals sing the litany of the saints.

The Liturgy has to include a procession because "We're always the pilgrim Church on earth," said Irwin

The cardinals sing the litany of the saints as a way of declaring their communion with the entire Church throughout its history.

"It's our family album. That's who we are," said Irwin. After entering the Sistine Chapel the cardinals sing "Come Holy Spirit."

The entire process of voting, where cardinals write names on paper ballots, carry the ballots to the front of the Sistine Chapel where they solemnly declare they have voted in conscience for the one they believe should be pope, followed by the counting of votes and the burning of ballots is conducted in a hushed and reverential atmosphere.

"It's a religious ceremony. It's quiet," said Irwin. "They do things slowly, graciously. There's no rush. It's with great reverence and decorum."

On Tuesday there will be just one ballot, but the following days will have up to four per day — two in the morning and two in the evening. If balloting goes on three days without a decision, activity is suspended for a brief retreat of up to one day.

Provision is made for the cardinals to pray the liturgy of the hours together if they wish. Otherwise they pray the divine office alone.

The vote requires a two-thirds majority, at least 77 votes to elect a new pope at this conclave.

If after three days no one has been elected the ritual recommends a brief retreat of up to one day before voting resumes. After another three ballots without a decision, there can be another pause. While no one knows how long this liturgy will last, Marini believes it should not be too long.

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