How a new pope will be chosen
How a new pope will be chosen
Arrangements for John Paul's funeral, the interregnum
and the election of a new pontiff will follow a
John Hooper in Rome, Stephen Bates and Rory Carroll
Saturday April 2, 2005
The death of the Pope has set in train an anomalous
interlude, during which the world's 1 billion Roman
Catholics will be without a leader and mourning for
the dead pontiff will co-exist uneasily with fervid
preparations for the election of his successor.
Archaic ritual will be much to the fore, masking the
Vatican's growing use of modern technology and
Two men will take the key roles during the next two to
three weeks before a new pope is chosen: a Spaniard
close to the conservative Opus Dei fellowship, and a
German who, for more than 20 years, has been the
church's theological watchdog.
Cardinal Eduardo Mart�nez Somalo is the head of the
Vatican "ministry" responsible for religious orders.
He also holds the title of Camerlengo, or chamberlain,
of the Holy Roman Church. That title only acquires
substance at the moment a pope draws his last breath.
At that point, the Cardinal Camerlengo becomes a sort
of interim administrator, although in no sense an
His first duty is to decide that the Pope has really
died. Traditionally, this was done in the presence of
the Papal Master of Ceremonies, and various other
members of the pontifical household, by tapping the
pope on the forehead with a silver hammer and calling
out his baptismal name three times to see whether
there was any response. A veil was also sometimes
placed over the pontiff's face to check that he was no
Cardinal Mart�nez is more likely to have relied on the
judgment of the pope's team of doctors. But his
chamberlain's silver hammer will not lie idle, for its
other use is break the Fisherman's Ring - the
pontiff's individualised signet ring - to ensure that
no instructions are given out under his seal after his
The Cardinal Camerlengo must inform the Cardinal Vicar
for Rome - who, in turn, announces the death to the
people of the city - and tell the other key figure in
the interregnum, the Dean of the College of Cardinals,
whose job it is to inform his fellow-cardinals, heads
of state and the ambassadors accredited to the Holy
Since 2002, the Dean of the College of Cardinals has
been Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a former archbishop of
Munich and the head of the "ministry" in the Vatican
that helps to shape Catholic doctrine and keeps an eye
out for maverick Catholic theologians.
The chamberlain arranges for the death of the pope to
be certified and his body to be removed. He then locks
off the pontiff's apartment within the Vatican to
ensure that his possessions do not fall into the wrong
There was a time when there was a danger of the people
of Rome looting the pope's residence after his death
and, although that risk may have disappeared, there
are intelligence chiefs and newspaper editors who
would pay handsomely for a peek at some of the most
private documents in existence.
Some souvenir hunters would no doubt do the same to
own something, however intrinsically valueless, that
was once the property of St Peter's successor.
The Cardinal Camerlengo's next job is to arrange for
the funeral, and it is at this point that he will
start to coordinate his work with the cardinals. These
"princes of the church" were originally papal advisers
named from among the deacons and priests of Rome and
the bishops whose dioceses were close enough to the
city for them to be able to get to the pope when their
counsel was needed.
Nowadays, the cardinals are senior prelates from all
over the world, but still the tradition is maintained
of designating them on appointment to one of three
orders so that they become either cardinal-deacons,
cardinal-priests or cardinal-bishops.
In consultation with the heads of the three orders of
cardinals, the chamberlain arranges for nine days of
official mourning, the lying in state of the pope's
body in St Peter's Basilica, and his burial, which -
in normal circumstances - takes place between four and
six days after his death.
Popes have traditionally been interred in St Peter's,
but popes have almost always been Italians, and Karol
Wojtyla was not. It remains to be seen whether Pope
John Paul has left instructions for his body to be
returned to his native Poland.
Immediately a pope's death becomes known, the Roman
Catholic church's central administration, known as the
Curia, goes into deep-freeze. The heads of all the
Vatican's departments will cease to perform their
functions, with day to day business being taken over
by more junior officials, called Secretaries.
The Cardinal Camerlengo will convene and chair a
four-strong board of his fellow cardinals, called the
Particular Congregation, to oversee their activities.
Important decisions, however, will be left to the
College of Cardinals, which is presided over by
Neither he nor the cardinals as a group, though, have
the power to take decisions that would normally
correspond to those taken by a pope.
So, just as the chamberlain is not an acting pontiff,
nor is the College of Cardinals a temporary collegiate
leadership in any but the most limited sense. There is
no danger of anyone naming new bishops or slipping in
a change of doctrine.
Meetings of all the cardinals already in Rome can be
expected to begin soon, and their numbers will swell
as others fly in from across the world, at the bidding
of the Cardinal Camerlengo, for the election of a new
The summons can be brusque: the telegram dispatched by
Cardinal Villot, chamberlain at the time of Paul VI's
death in 1978, said simply: "The Pope is dead. Come at once."