Church in Transition
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Posted April 18, 2005 at  3:30 p.m. CDT

The voting process has begun

By John L. Allen, Jr.

Rather predictably, the first night of the 2005 conclave ended in puffs of black smoke. Though the cardinals are not obligated to hold a ballot on the first evening, historically it’s the pattern. The dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, was obligated to ask the cardinals if any of them had questions about the procedures to be followed under John Paul II’s document, Universi Dominici Gregis, but presumably by this point every question had been asked and answered a half-dozen times. Hence the cardinals opted to proceed directly to a first ballot, since they are presumably as anxious as everyone else to see which way things will go.

From here, things will become steadily more unpredictable. Tuesday, April 19, presents the first serious window in which we might expect to have a pope. If a pope is elected, the junior cardinal deacon, Chilean cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, will appear on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in order to make the famous Habemus Papam announcement, followed in short order by the new pope’s first Urbi et Orbi blessing.

When Karol Wojtyla stepped out onto that balcony in October 1978, he broke with custom by ad-libbing a few lines after the blessing, establishing an immediate rapport between this Polish pope and an initially dubious Roman crowd. There was a delicious moment when the Master of Ceremonies at the time, now Cardinal Virgilio Noe, attempted to pull Wojtyla back, gently suggesting that he was infringing the rules of papal protocol. John Paul II waved him off, the first sign that he intended to conduct his pontificate on his own terms.

Especially if the next pope is a non-Italian, one would expect that he would follow Wojtyla’s lead and say a few words to his new flock in their native language.

Even prior to that, however, we will have received the first precious indication of where the new pope intends to take the church by the name he decides to take. Pius XIII, for example, would suggest a more traditional and conservative pontificate in line with the 20th century papacies of Pius X, XI and XII. John XXIV, on the other hand, might suggest a more reforming pontificate reminiscent of Pope John XXIII, “Good Pope John.” John Paul III, meanwhile, would point to a pontificate that stands in basic continuity with his predecessor.

At this stage, any attempt to divine what’s going on inside the Sistine Chapel would be aimless speculation (except to say the theory floated earlier in the week that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would be elected by a kind of quasi-acclamation on the first ballot obviously proved unfounded).

In the meantime, however, here’s one bit of papal trivia. The Vatican has announced that the next pope will be the 265th successor to St. Peter. That’s their line, and most media organizations have dutifully repeated it. One can arrive at that number, however, only by counting one pope three times: Benedict IX, who occupied the papacy for three non-consecutive terms in the 11th century.

Born to a Tusculan noble family and given the name Theophylact, Benedict IX, the nephew of two previous popes, was installed in 1032. In 1044, a revolt against his family’s domination resulted in his exile, and in his absence Sylvester III became pope. In March of the following year, 1045, the tables turned and Benedict returned to power. Two months later, however, he abdicated, and one theory has it he did so in order to make money from the transfer of his office to his godfather, who became Gregory VI. After a complicated series of events, Benedict IX was again returned to the Throne of Peter in 1047, reigning until 1048 when he was forced from office by the Emperor Henry III.

Thus, to be technical about matters, John Paul II’s successor will lead the 265th pontificate after Peter’s, but will be only the 263rd pope after the original.

Either way you look at it, however, it’s been a long run.

One other point that can be made in these days of anticipation is that the conclave as it is presently structured, i.e., election of the pope by the College of Cardinals, is not part of the divine constitution of the church, and could be changed. Indeed, it has been done differently at various points in church history. In 1417, for example, during the Council of Constance, not only the 23 cardinals at the time. but 30 deputies, many of them laity, of the six Catholic nations represented at the council took part in the conclave that chose Martin V. It was the last time that lay people took part in the election of a pope. Nevertheless, under the old Thomistic axiom that if something has been done it can be done, one cannot exclude the possibility of different modes of electing popes in the future.

Paul VI once toyed with the idea of adding presidents of bishops’ conferences to the electoral body. Whether a future pope might entertain such ideas, or act on them, is anyone’s guess, but it is certainly within the bounds of legitimate debate.

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