15 February 2013
A red skull cap is seen as the world’s cardinals gather in St. Peter’s Basilica before the start of the last conclave in this 2005 file photo. (photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec)
With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI continuing to generate headlines and analysis, we asked our external affairs officer, Father Elias Mallon, to look at a few little-known facts about papal elections.
For several centuries the bishop of Rome was chosen in the same manner as other bishops — by the clergy, the neighboring bishops and the people of Rome. In 709, a Synod of the Lateran abolished the role of the people of Rome in the selection of the bishop. Nonetheless, slightly less than a hundred years later, in 862, the right of approval was restored to the Roman nobility by Pope Nicholas I.
In 1059, Pope Nicholas II decreed that the pope should be elected by the cardinals, although the system he set up was very different from the present one and a pope took office still only after the assent of the clergy and laity of Rome.
The conclave (Latin: cum clave, “[locked in] with a key”) was in place by the time of Pope Gregory X (1271-1276). Gregory set up stringent rules intended to prevent the extremely lengthy elections that had taken place in the past. Cardinals were secluded, were without private rooms and were allowed only two servants. After three days, they were to receive one meal a day; after five days, only bread and water. Over the centuries popes added, removed and modified different aspects of the conclave. Pope John Paul II codified the procedures now in place in 1996. The present conditions under which cardinals in conclave live aren’t as harsh as those prescribed by Gregory but they are still, nonetheless, monastic.
The number of cardinals has varied greatly over the centuries. Pope Sixtus V limited the number to 70 in 1587. However, in 1970 Pope Paul VI raised the number to 120, stipulating that cardinals over the age of 80 at the time of a pope’s death (or resignation) are ineligible to vote in a conclave. It is estimated that at times the College of Cardinals consisted of less than 10 cardinals.
The youngest pope ever elected was Giovanni di Medici who took the name Leo X. He was elected in 1513 at the age of 38. Although he was tonsured and, therefore, a cleric, he was not ordained or the member of a religious order at the time of his election. In 533, a man named Mercurius was elected. He thought it inappropriate for the bishop of Rome to have the name of the Roman god Mercury and changed his name to John (II). Since then, most popes have changed their names on being elected. The last pope to keep his baptismal name was Pope Marcellus II, who reigned less than 20 days in April 1555.
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