Much media coverage of a conclave, both secular and Catholic, consists of speculation about who is papabile, what changes the Church must make during the next pontificate, and where the next pope will come from. More or less well-informed opinion tends to crowd out a faith perspective. Here are a few little-known facts about a papal conclave that might help to restore it.
The particular law that governs a papal election was thoroughly updated by Pope John Paul II on February 22, 1996, with the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis; it was further modified by a few amendments introduced by Pope Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Letter Normas Nonnullas on February 22, 2013, just before his retirement. In each case the reigning pope, as the supreme legislator in the Church, promulgated laws concerning the election of his successors, on the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter.
Rome is called “The Eternal City” but its episcopal throne is occupied by a series of “earthen vessels”. By Church law, two physicians are to be on hand throughout the conclave to respond to possible medical emergencies (UDG 46). One of the first acts of the conclave is to select by lot three “Infirmarians”; their responsibility is to collect ballots in a secure lockbox from those cardinal electors who have arrived in Vatican City but are prevented by illness from being present to vote in the Sistine Chapel (UDG 64).
The Chapel and adjacent areas are to be swept by professionals to ensure that they have not been bugged with recording or transmitting devices (UDG 51). All cardinal electors and the staff that assist them (e.g. masters of ceremonies) must promise to refrain from using cellphone cameras, etc. and must swear “absolute and perpetual secrecy” about the voting (UDG 48) unless specifically authorized by the newly-elected pope or his successors.
A conclave is not a miniature Ecumenical Council or a Particular Synod of Bishops. It is a subset of the College of Cardinals, limited to those who had not yet reached their eightieth birthday on the day when the Holy See became vacant (UDG 33). As such, the College of Cardinals in no way “represents” the local Churches; rather, it is a body of prelates appointed to help the pope as he governs the Universal Church. There is no chance that through some power play “collegiality”, the authority of the College of Bishops in union with the Supreme Pontiff, could encroach upon papal authority during a conclave. “During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, the College of Cardinals has no power or jurisdiction in matters which pertain to the Supreme Pontiff during his lifetime or in the exercise of his office; such matters are to be reserved completely and exclusively to the future Pope” (UDG 1). Any actions taken in the interim by the College of Cardinals beyond their canonical competence are declared “null and void”. After the funeral of the deceased Bishop of Rome (if applicable), the only item on their agenda is to elect a new pope.
The cardinal electors are expected to listen to “two well-prepared meditations on the problems facing the Church at the time and on the need for careful discernment in choosing the new Pope” that are presented to them by “two ecclesiastics [not necessarily electors] known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority” (UDG 13.d). These meditations, together with the liturgical formalities and the strict isolation from the outside world, make a conclave rather like an enclosed retreat. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as a General Chapter of a religious community that is convened to elect a new Superior General.
A conclave gathers prelates from all over the world who are accustomed to heading an archdiocese or a Vatican bureaucracy, houses them in identical narrow rooms in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, calls them to pray and celebrate the liturgy together, and requires them to deliberate by secret ballot until the day when they have elected the next Bishop of Rome, to whom they will pledge their obedient service.
There has not been a papal conclave during Lent since 1829.