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NEWS STORY: All Eyes Turn to Rome: A Look at What’s Ahead for the Catholic Church

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) And now, all eyes turn to Rome. While the world watches, over the next two to three weeks leaders of the 1.1 billion-member Catholic Church will follow a rigorously scripted process of mourning, burial and continuity that first will lay to rest John Paul II, then elect his successor. […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) And now, all eyes turn to Rome.

While the world watches, over the next two to three weeks leaders of the 1.1 billion-member Catholic Church will follow a rigorously scripted process of mourning, burial and continuity that first will lay to rest John Paul II, then elect his successor.

None of it is dictated by Scripture. Rather, much of what will happen is rooted in custom and tradition nearly a thousand years old.

But some also is brand new _ including the possibility of a crucial, first-ever change in voting procedure that may determine the identity of the next pope.

Officially, the Church is in an interregnum, a period in which it has no temporal leader.

Around the world the daily life of the church will be unaffected: Over the next two or three weeks, Mass will be celebrated daily, the sacraments of baptism, marriage and anointing of the sick will continue uninterrupted. The devout will say their rosaries; schoolchildren will take religious instruction; thousands of faithful, like the pope himself, will be lowered into the earth to the murmur of ancient prayers.

But much of the central administrative life of the church will grind almost to a halt as the main players in the next act turn away from their normal duties to go about the business of burial and renewal.

Even now, some 183 cardinals and thousands of bishops _ not to mention uncounted thousands of interested laypeople and tourists _ are en route to Rome.

Twenty-six years ago an estimated 75,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square for the two-hour funeral Mass of Pope Paul VI. John Paul’s may be bigger.

Long ago, global broadcasting giants recognized that the events of the next few days will be among the biggest news stories of the year, no matter when the pope’s death occurred. In preparation, they locked up the exclusive services of various church experts to decode the coming process for viewers.

The broadcasting will be anchored from every available Roman terrace and balcony with a view of St. Peter’s landmark dome. The sites were secured through temporary leases years ago and maintained ever since with rich annual payments to delighted landlords.

There is much to demystify.

The next few days will be full of anachronistic customs and formulas born in a medieval church, but kept by a modern one to remind itself _ and the world _ of the sheer weight of its longevity.

For instance, moments after his death, an aide ceremonially called out three times to John Paul using his baptismal name (Karol) as part of the ritual certifying death. Soon after, John Paul’s papal ring was defaced so its seal could not be pressed into the wax of spurious papal documents.

In a few days, with most of the cardinals of the church gathered in the historic Sistine Chapel, the master of papal liturgical ceremonies will call out an old formula: “Extra omnes!” (“Everybody out!”) _ expelling all from the room except those chosen to elect a successor in the closed, days-long meeting: the conclave.

And finally, the most famous anachronism of all: In time a thin plume of white smoke will curl from an ordinary chimney above the chapel, the cardinals’ sign that they have elected a new pope.

The date for John Paul’s funeral likely will be set soon by a group of senior cardinals, but must fall on the fourth to sixth day after death, according to the church’s fixed script.

Embedded in the next two weeks or so will be a period the church calls the “novemdiales” _ the nine days of observances _ during which there will be a daily funeral rite of some kind for John Paul.

During this period, administrative business that cannot be put off is handled by “general congregations,” or daily meetings of cardinals gathered in Rome for the funeral.

As the church moves through the funeral it will increasingly shift its focus to the crucial next step: the secret conclave inside the Vatican in which the cardinals will elect a baptized male _ almost certainly one of their own _ as the 264th successor to Peter.


Although open pre-conclave campaigning among cardinals is not tolerated, the novemdiales can be rich with discreet political activity, according to John Allen, Rome correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and author of “Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election.”

Cardinals arriving from around the world will arrange for quiet dinners after each day’s events. Combining and recombining in small groups of twos and threes, they will sound out each other on the problems facing the church and who among them might best face them, writes Allen.

In the culture of the church, open self-promotion for the papacy is lethal to one’s chances. But there is the art of indirection.

In times past, front-runners _ “papabili,” or those who are “popable” _ have used interviews during the novemdiales to obliquely signal their availability, said Allen. Usually they do so in humble language indicating they would bow to the designs of Providence.

Handicappers also listen to ordinary cardinal-electors’ public remarks. Observers are scanning them carefully for some hint of how the electors themselves prioritize the challenges facing the church _ and thus perhaps indicate their preferred candidate.


Sometime between the 15th and 20th day after John Paul’s death, members of the College of Cardinals under the age of 80 will seclude themselves in the Vatican and begin the secret, open-ended process of choosing the next pope.

John Paul appointed all but three of the 117 electors, one of many ways he put his stamp on the Catholic Church.

In past years cardinals’ housing arrangements inside the Vatican were spartan to the point of misery, which had the beneficial effect of hurrying the conclave to a conclusion.

This time, however, while the cardinals will debate and cast their daily votes in the customary site, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, they will be able to retire to the Casa Santa Marta, a new $20 million hotel inside the Vatican.

The process for electing the next pope is spelled out in minute detail in Universi Dominci Gregis, a 1996 renovation of the election procedure crafted by John Paul. Much of the document codifies anew ancient electoral customs, while some ratifies relatively recent changes _ for example, limiting papal electors to those cardinals under the age of 80, a change made by Pope Paul VI.

On the afternoon of the first day of the conclave, the cardinals take one ballot, according to John Paul’s plans. Thereafter they meet, pray, debate and vote four times a day, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon.

Each time they burn the ballots. Smoke rises up a nondescript stovepipe chimney that pokes through the roof of the Sistine Chapel, becoming the target of every telescopic lens in Rome.

Black smoke tells the world no pope has been picked as yet.

It takes two-thirds plus one of those voting to elect a new pope. In the first or second ballot, cardinals often indulge themselves with their personal favorites, without regard to a candidate’s ultimate electability.

Soon thereafter the serious candidates emerge from the pack. But, if over time their surge stalls short of the margin of victory, they are done for. Their supporters cast them off and try to attract broader support for another name _ perhaps in a compromise with another voting faction.

But this time, John Paul has inserted a new provision that has intrigued church experts with its potential to radically alter the voting dynamic.

John Paul’s rules call for a day of prayer and rest if three days, or about five ballots, of inconclusive balloting go by. After that, seven ballots and a similar pause; seven ballots and pause; seven ballots and pause.

If there is still no pope after about 12 days or about 25 ballots, the cardinals may discuss how to proceed. Under the new rule, a simple majority may declare an end to the two-thirds margin. They may decide instead that a simple majority of electors will elect the next pope.

If a stable majority backing one candidate cannot persuade enough colleagues to boost him to the magic two-thirds number, they need only hold out until the rule change kicks in that will make their candidate the new pope.