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Electing a new pope draws on tradition and secrecy
First Published Feb 11 2013 01:26 pm • Last Updated Feb 22 2013 11:33 am

Vatican City • Pope Benedict XVI soon will become the first pope to resign since 1415, short-circuiting many of the initial stages of electing a new pope. But the Vatican says the transition to a new papacy shouldn’t be all that different from normal.

Of course, the traditional rituals associated with confirming the death of a pope and planning his funeral will not be necessary. But the process outlined below, rife with secrecy and tradition, will largely follow centuries-old protocol.

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The interregnum

Pending the election of a new pope, most of the cardinals who lead the Vatican’s bureaucracy — the Roman Curia — leave office.

There are three exceptions. The camerlengo, who takes charge of property and money matters. The vicar of Rome, who continues to provide for the pastoral needs of Romans. And the major penitentiary, the official who grants absolutions and dispensations.

Until the conclave to elect the new pope opens, the College of Cardinals meets daily in a "general congregation" presided over by the dean of the college, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state under John Paul II. Attendance is optional for cardinals age 80 and over, and they do not vote in the conclave.

The conclave opens

The word conclave is derived from the Latin phrase for "with a key."


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It was first used by Pope Gregory X in 1274 in a proclamation outlining the procedure for electing a pope in a meeting place that can be securely locked.

The conclave should open 15 days after the pope resigns but could be postponed to 20 days. All cardinals under age 80 are eligible to vote for the new pope. Pope Paul VI limited the number of cardinal-electors to 120; currently 118 are eligible.

The cardinals live in seclusion in the Casa Santa Marta, a luxury residence inside the Vatican walls. They meet to vote under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica.

Once the conclave begins, a cardinal-elector may leave only because of illness or other serious reason accepted by a majority of his fellow cardinals. Everyone associated with the conclave — doctors, nurses, confessors, masters of liturgical ceremonies, sacristans and various priest assistants and housekeeping and catering staff — must swear never to tell anything they learn about the election.

The conclave opens in the morning with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the afternoon, the cardinals, vested in scarlet robes, walk in procession in order of seniority from the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel to the chant of the ninth-century Latin hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus."

The cardinals take an oath of secrecy. They swear to accept no interference in the election and to observe the rules set down in the Apostolic Constitution on the election of a pope.

The master of pontifical liturgical celebrations then orders everyone who’s not taking part or assisting in the conclave to leave — the doctors, nurses, caterers and others — the room, using the Latin phrase "extra omnes" (all out). Assisted by the undersecretary of state, he closes off the cardinals’ hotel and the Sistine Chapel.

After a meditation by a priest, whom the cardinals have chosen earlier, voting can begin immediately or the next morning.

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