Electing a pope: How a pope is elected
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How a pope is elected
Conclave veterans say most 'electioneering' happens out of public view

By John L. Allen Jr.

When it comes to electing a pope, there are no Iowa caucuses, no candidate debates, no conventions or platforms. The "campaign" is more analogous to the 2003 California gubernatorial recall than a presidential primary -- a quick sprint that flares up unexpectedly and is over before it even seems to begin.

Conclave veterans say most of the heavy lifting involved in electing a pope happens out of public view. Cardinal Franz König of Vienna, in a July 2001 NCR interview, said the real work is done in behind-the-scenes meetings of three and four cardinals, perhaps over glasses of wine and cigars, as opposed to any of the formal events. "An external observer would think that nothing is happening," König said. "All the conversation happens in private."

These moments in which the fateful decisions are made tend to come in two stages, before the conclave and during.

Pre-conclave politics

Theoretically, the cardinals are not supposed to discuss the papal succession, even among themselves, before the nine-day mourning period called the Novemdiales. The interregnum is thus the peak "campaign season," although technically cardinals are forbidden from politics in the usual sense of the term. John Paul's 1996 constitution says: "The cardinal electors shall abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind. … [They are] not to allow themselves to be guided … by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favor or personal relationships towards anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear or the pursuit of popularity." Yet the pope also strikes this realistic note: "It is not my intention … to forbid, during the period in which the see is vacant, the exchange of views concerning the election."

Sometimes this "exchange of views" takes the form of one cardinal sounding out a potential candidate on a particularly sensitive issue, then reporting to others. In the Novemdiales of 1958, for example, curial Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo went to visit the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angello Roncalli, on Oct. 17, to ascertain his position on one of the most highly charged issues of that conclave -- what the new pope would do about Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan, who had been exiled from Pius XII's curia. Roncalli, never the naif some took him for, gave a reassuring response: "How could a man be secretary of state when he is not desired by the cardinals of the curia?" he said.

Roncalli went on to be elected pope, and honored his old friendship with Montini in another way, making Montini his first appointment as a cardinal. Roncalli's diary from the pre-conclave period records a number of visitors who sought him out at his lodgings at the Domus Mariae on the Via Aurelia, above the Vatican. On Oct. 15, he writes that there had been "a grand movement of butterflies around my poor person."

Cardinal Giuseppe Siri noted in his official biography that during the Novemdiales leading up to the first 1978 conclave, Cardinals Egidio Vagnozzi and Pietro Palazzini visited him to sound him out about becoming pope. "I was asked to express myself with respect to the idea of my candidacy," Siri wrote. "I responded that I was not asking anything of anyone, nor was I denying anything to anyone." In this quintessentially oblique Italian way, Siri made it clear he was available. Vagnozzi and Palazzini communicated his green light to Cardinals Josef Höffner of Germany, Terence Cooke of New York and Avelar Brandão Vilela of Brazil, leaders of the conservative forces.

Sometimes these encounters take place over a typically exquisite Roman dinner. One privileged spot is L'Eau Vive, a French restaurant located behind the Pantheon in the historic center of Rome. It is run by a Belgian order of nuns, and at 10 p.m. every evening service is interrupted for night prayer, which involves the guests in singing hymns to the Virgin Mary.

Other times these sessions involve several like-minded cardinals who gather in private to form strategies and identify candidates. As reported by veteran Vatican analyst Giancarlo Zizzola, on June 18, 1963, two days before the conclave that elected Paul VI, one such session took place at the convent of the Capuchins of Frascati in Rome. Present were French Cardinal Achille Liénart, Dutchman Bernard Alfrink, Canadian Emile Léger, Austrian Franz König, Belgian Leon Suenens, German Josef Frings, and Italian Giovanni Battista Montini.

They agreed it would be a difficult conclave, for while the progressives had a large vote in the council, the curialists and conservatives certainly remained strong within the College of Cardinals. The meeting at the Capuchin convent decided to support Montini as the only man who could capture the pro-conciliar vote, yet persuade enough of the conservatives that he would not go too far, too fast, given his own curial background. They were right, and Montini became Paul VI.

The conclave itself

Based on the best information available, a breakdown is provided below of how long each 20th-century conclave lasted in terms of days and ballots. With ballots, historians sometimes dispute the exact number (there is only one official record of each conclave, and it lies in a sealed envelope in the papal archives). Hence the numbers could be off, but not by much.

1903 (election of Pius X): 4 days, 7 ballots
1914 (election of Benedict XV): 3 days, 10 ballots
1922 (election of Pius XI): 5 days, 14 ballots
1939 (election of Pius XII): 2 days, 3 ballots
1958 (election of John XXIII): 4 days, 11 ballots
1963 (election of Paul VI): 3 days, 6 ballots
1978 (election of John Paul I): 2 days, 4 ballots
1978 (election of John Paul II): 3 days, 8 ballots

Typically, conclaves open with two or more candidates who have strong followings. It is customary that on the first ballot, cardinals will spread their votes around, often voting for friends or respected colleagues whom they realize stand little real chance of being elected. Hence the first vote often has a symbolic function, and it is the next morning's task to get down to the serious business of choosing a pope. As one or more names began to gather steam over the next couple of ballots, the drama is whether one of them will be able to reach the two-thirds majority before their candidacy begins to decline. If not, other alternatives will have to be found. This kind of sorting out usually starts in earnest on the second day, which is the first full day of the conclave.

In the first conclave of 1978, to take an example of how these dynamics work, two basic choices lay before the cardinals. They could continue the Church reform launched by John XXIII's Second Vatican Council and carried forward, albeit with some angst, by Paul VI, or they could move in a more conservative direction, declaring the time of experimentation finished in favor of a new period of conservation and consolidation. Faced with these fundamental options, the 1978 conclave rejected high-profile candidates who would have represented a clear victory for one option or the other, and instead found a compromise.

Cardinal Giovanni Benelli of Florence, who had been Paul VI's right-hand man and who was in many ways the obvious candidate to succeed him, took himself out of the running. He knew his candidacy would be divisive. Instead, he used the Novemdiales period to stump for his preferred papabile -- Albino Luciani of Vencine. Benelli felt that Luciani could be relied upon to continue the reforms associated with Paul VI, but he also knew that Luciani would not be too deeply unsettling to the conservatives. Luciani could count on broad support from the Third World, where he had traveled extensively. He was a good friend of Brazil's Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who commanded enormous respect among the Third World cardinals, and whose own preference would therefore be closely watched.

The only other serious candidate in 1978 was Siri, the perennial conservative front-runner. Siri, unlike Benelli, was not hesitant about allowing his name to be put forward as a candidate. Some observers believe that Siri frankly expected to be elected pope in 1978. There were a few other names floated from curial circles, including Sebastiano Baggio and Sergio Pignedoli, but it was clear that Siri was the first choice of those who felt the church needed a "break" from the reforming spirit of the previous two popes.

In the first round, the votes were scattered. Siri was in the lead with 25, followed by Luciani with 23. In the second ballot, which followed immediately, there was a dramatic increase in Luciani's total, to 53. Siri, meanwhile, actually dropped one vote to 24. In a sign of things to come, four ballots had the name of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow. After the cardinals broke for lunch, the Hungarian Lazlo Lékai reportedly said to Luciani, "Your votes are increasing," to which he responded, "This is only a summer storm."

That afternoon, in the third ballot, Luciani attracted 70 votes, just short of the 73 needed for a two-thirds margin. On the fourth ballot, the result was quasi-unanimous -- according to one version, Luciani received 101 of the 111 total votes. Cardinal Joseph Höffner of Germany told the media there was no need to count the votes, because the only name read out by the scrutineer was Luciani.

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