VATICAN CITY -- The process of picking a successor to Pope Benedict XVI officially got underway Monday with more than 100 of the electors meeting in "congregations," but press officials said the dates of the papal conclave will not be set until all the cardinal electors are in town.
Of the 115 cardinals who can vote, 103 were in Rome for the pre-conclave meeting in which the cardinals a chance to get to know one another better. The Vatican said the cardinals prayed together and talked over coffee.
Twelve more cardinals had yet to arrive. The dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, has said a date won't be finalized until all the cardinals are at the Vatican.
Fr. Federico Lombardy, Vatican spokesman, characterized the talks as "positive, serine, warm, cordial, and constructive." He did not speak about specific topics of discussion.
On Monday each cardinal present took an oath pledging to honor "rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff." The cardinals also agreed to send pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned Friday, a message on behalf of the group, the Vatican said.
The meetings are being translated into five languages -- English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish -- with the translators sworn to secrecy about what they hear.
Benedict XVI remained at the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, his temporary retirement home while cardinals pick his successor, as television crews swarmed around the red-capped churchmen outside the Vatican.
"A Latin American Pope is possible, everything is possible!" said Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins as he entered.
The cardinals discussed procedures for closing the Sistine Chapel to visitors and getting the Vatican hotel cleared out. It was revealed that someone dressed as a bishop and with a staff of fake priests tried unsuccessfully to sneak into the meetings.
Lombardy declined to elaborate, saying only: "All I can say is that everyone seated for the congregation is a real cardinal."
All 142 of 207 cardinals -- including those aged 80 or older, who cannot vote for the next pope -- participated in the morning meetings. Most of the remaining cardinal electors are expected to arrive later Monday or on Tuesday. Lombardi did not exclude the possibility that the full contingent might not be gathered until Wednesday or later.
One cardinal who will not be arriving is Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who admitted Sunday that he was guilty of "inappropriate" relations with priests in the 1980s. Also absent will be Indonesian Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, who is too frail to travel.
Lombardi said the structure of the meetings has been designed to allow for ample time for informal discussions. He said at the last conclave, in 2005, when Benedict was selected to succeed John Paul II, such early discussions were essential in determining the leading candidacies for the papacy especially among cardinals working far from Rome and unfamiliar with many of their fellow cardinals.
The meetings are being led by Sodano, the dean, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, camerlengo of the camera, and Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the congregation of bishops. They were joined by three cardinals selected as assistants, one from each order: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, and Cardinal Franc Rode, respectively. These assistants will serve for three days each, after which a new group will be selected.
Bertone, Battista Re, and Sepe are among those cardinals who may be leading candidates to become pope.
How the conclave elects a new pope
The College of Cardinals elects a new pope in conclave, which is the process of sequestering the voting members of the college in Vatican City so that they have no contact with the outside world. The word "conclave" comes from the Latin phrase cum clavis, meaning "with key." The term is suitable since the cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel in theApostolic Palace during the voting process.
Rules for electing a new pope:
- A two-thirds-plus-one majority is required to elect a pope.
- Two ballots each are held in the morning and afternoon, for a total of four per day.
- If a new pope is not selected after 12 to 13 days, the cardinals may choose to impose a majority vote, which would allow selection of a new pope by a simple majority.
Each rectangular ballot is inscribed at the top with the words Eligo in Summum Pontificem, meaning "I elect as supreme pontiff." Below these words, each cardinal writes down the name of the person he chooses as the pope. The vote is done in secret with paper and pen. The voting cardinal then folds the ballot twice, holds it in the air, and carries it the chapel's altar. He then says, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." The cardinal places the ballot on a plate that sits atop the ballot receptacle and uses the plate to drop the ballot into the receptacle. After bowing before the altar, he returns to his seat.
Three Scrutineers, who are selected by all of the cardinals, are charged with counting the ballots. Once the ballots are collected, the Scrutineers count the ballots to determine if everyone has voted. If the number of ballots doesn't match the number of electors, the ballots are immediately burned and another vote is taken.
Steps for the Scrutineers:
- The first Scrutineer takes a ballot, notes the name on it, and passes it to the next Scrutineer.
- The second Scrutineer notes the name and passes it to the third Scrutineer.
- The third Scrutineer reads aloud the name on the ballot, pierces the ballot with a needle through the word Eligo at the top of the ballot, and slides the ballot onto a string of thread.
- Each elector notes the name that is read.
- Once all ballots are read, the Scrutineers write down the official count on a separate sheet of paper.
- The third Scrutineer ties the ends of the thread on which the ballots are placed in a knot to preserve the vote.
- The ballots are placed in a receptacle.
After each vote, the ballots and any notes regarding them are burned. Smoke from the burning of the ballots appears over the Vatican Palace. If no pope has been chosen, a chemical is applied to the ballots in order to create black smoke when burned. White smoke - with no added chemicals - signals that a pope has been elected.
The newly elected pope then selects his papal name, which may be one of the first clues in terms of the course he intends to steer for the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.