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Electing the Next Pope

Election Day

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The formal naming of a new pope, just like the election process itself, is heavily defined by long-standing traditions. A person doesn’t simply get a phone call or short applause; instead, they are invested with the title and vestments of his new office in a manner that harkens back to the days when a pope was as much a temporal as spiritual ruler.

Once elected, the new pope is asked by the Dean of the College of Cardinals if he accepts the election (“Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”) and, if so, what new name he would like to be known as. At this point he officially becomes Pontifex Maximus, or the Holy Roman Pontiff. The other cardinals pledge their allegiance to him and he is dressed in the pontifical vestments, a white soutane and skull cap. This occurs in “The Room of Tears,” so called because it is common for a new pope to break down and cry now that the magnitude of what has befallen them becomes clear.

If for some reason a lay person were elected, the Dean of the College of Cardinals would first have to ordain him to the appropriate clerical offices, from priest through bishop, before he could take over the post of Bishop of Rome that is required of all popes. If he is already a bishop somewhere, it is tradition that he set aside that post.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals then exits the conclave to announce to the world:

    Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam. Eminentissimus et Reverendissimus Dominus, Dominus ___ Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalis Qui sibi accipit nomen ___.
    (I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope. The most eminent and reverend Lord, the Lord ___ Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Who takes to himself the name __)

The new pontiff then appears alongside the Dean to deliver an Apostolic Blessing. Traditionally the new pope is then carried on a Sedia Gestatoria (Papal Throne) around St. Peter’s and has a Papal Tiara ceremoniously placed on his head. This monarchial symbolism has lost much of its luster in modern times and Pope John Paul I abolished it. No further “ordination” or “coronation” is required after a person has accepted their election as papacy; theologically, there is no one “above” the pope with the authority necessary to do such a thing.

A few days after a successful election, the first Papal Mass is held at St. Peter’s. While walking to the altar, the whole procession stops three times to burn a piece of flax that has been mounted on a reed. As the flames go out, someone says quietly to the new pope “Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi” (“Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world”). This is meant to remind the pope that, despite his powerful position, he remains a mortal who will also die someday.

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