The Conclave and St Joseph

At last! As of a couple of hours ago, we have a date for the start of the conclave. I stayed up for the 11pm (1pm Rome time) press conference and was disappointed when nothing emerged, but then woke to find that at their evening session, the Cardinals determined that the Conclave would start in the afternoon of the 12th of March.

Which is very nice because, although I was hoping for a pope BY my birthday (and we never do get everything we wish for), at least I get a consolation gift for my natal festival. Although strictly speaking, given that 10 hour time lapse, my birthday will be over by the time they go in. Or should I say, strictly speaking, it won’t be? Don’t know. All that timey-whimey, wibbly-wobbly stuff.

I’ve been trying to work the logic of all this out in my head, and it depends, I think, on how you read Universi Dominici Gregis paragraph 74 and its modification by Benedict XVI in Normas Nonnullas (no, please don’t ask me what Norma is doing with her nonnullus… that’s one for the canonists). Here are the two relevant paragraphs:

From Universi Dominici Gregis

74. In the event that the Cardinal electors find it difficult to agree on the person to be elected, after balloting has been carried out for three days in the form described above (in Nos. 62ff) without result, voting is to be suspended for a maximum of one day in order to allow a pause for prayer, informal discussion among the voters, and a brief spiritual exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Deacons. Voting is then resumed in the usual manner, and after seven ballots, if the election has not taken place, there is another pause for prayer, discussion and an exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Priests. Another series of seven ballots is then held and, if there has still been no election, this is followed by a further pause for prayer, discussion and an exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Bishops. Voting is then resumed in the usual manner and, unless the election occurs, it is to continue for seven ballots.

And in Normas Nonnullas:

No. 75. “If the balloting mentioned in Nos. 72, 73 and 74 of the aforementioned Constitution does not result in an election, one day shall be dedicated to prayer, reflection and dialogue; in the successive balloting, observing the order established in No. 74 of the same Constitution, only the two names which received the greatest number of votes in the previous scrutiny, will have passive voice. There can be no waiving of the requirement that, in these ballots too, for a valid election to take place there must be a clear majority of at least two thirds of the votes of the Cardinals present and voting. In these ballots the two names having passive voice do not have active voice.”

Now, first, what does “after balloting has been carried out for three days” mean? Is it three days chronologically speaking – ie. 72 hours after the moment the conclave begins – or is it three days by the calendar inclusive of the day on which the conclave began?

Lets imagine. One thing we know (or think we know, and I think we can reasonably think that we do know) is that there is no favourite in this conclave. As usual, John Allen Jnr does a marvellous job of summing it all up here. I would be very surprised if we have, as last time, a new pope after just four votes. This could be a protracted affair.

But there is another game changer in the current situation. I do not expect that any of the Cardinals would like to face the situation envisaged in Benedict’s new rule about only two names going forward after the break for a day of prayer “after balloting has been carried out for three days”. Think of it. If voting has been going on for this long (9 to 12 ballots, depending on how you determine “three days”) it will obviously be a sign that the Cardinals are not reaching agreement easily. In such a circumstance, are they likely to reach agreement any more easily after the possibility of a “compromise candidate” is ruled out?

Just in case you think this scenario is not possible, here is a little graphic from the WaPo giving the conclave lengths for the 20th (and 21st so far) century:


As you can see, three conclaves went for more than four days, and another three (not the same three) went for more than nine ballots. So it is possible. Note that John Paul II was elected on the third day after eight ballots.

Why is all this important? Because of timing. If the voting begins on Tuesday afternoon (Rome time), day three (calendrically) would be Thursday with a day of prayer on Friday and a return to the voting room (aka the Sistine Chapel) on Saturday. If we take three days as 72 hours, then Saturday would be the day of prayer, and there would not be a return to balloting until Sunday. Keep in mind that from the very beginning, Pope Benedict appears to have timed this in such a way that we will have a pope for Holy Week. No-one wants a Palm Sunday installation (all the Cardinals who are pastors of their sees will want to be home by then), so unless we have a week-day installation, you can be sure that the Cardinals are looking toward an installation mass on Sunday next, the 17th of March.

But by starting on Tuesday afternoon, rather than, say, Monday afternoon, are they cutting their rope a little bit short?

[update: I had this wrong. Fr Lombardi has clarified:

The Director of the Holy See Press Office also recalled the procedure in the case that a pontiff is not elected in the first four days of voting. In such an instance the cardinals will take a pause on the fifth day in order to pray, speak freely among themselves, and listen to a brief exhortation given by the senior cardinal in the Order of Deacons. The scrutinies will proceed in a similar fashion—two days of voting with every third day taken to pause for prayer—until the 34th vote on the afternoon of the eleventh day. In such an event, No. 75 of the Apostolic Constitution “Universi present and voting. In these ballots the two names having passive voice do not have active voice.” That is, the two candidates with the greatest number of votes will be voted for and cannot themselves cast a vote.

That makes much more sense..]

Anyway, St Joseph. I mentioned him in the title. He is one of my patrons, so at this time of year, heading up to his feast on the 19th of March, I do tend to look to his intercession. Cardinal Dolan has made a good suggestion:

I’m going to begin a novena to him on March 11, nine days of prayer in preparation for his feastday (two days after St. Patrick’s Day), asking him and his virgin-wife to look after the Church, and get us an inspired new Successor of St. Peter. Will you join me?

An excellent idea. And those clever guys who brought you the Confession App also have “an app for that”.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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3 Responses to The Conclave and St Joseph

  1. Charles G says:

    I think you’re misreading it. It doesn’t go to a run off after three days. You first have three days of voting, then a break, then seven votes, then a break, and then seven votes. If no one has been elected by then, it goes to a run off of the top two for seven votes. Of course my lawyer’s mind wants to know what happens if they can’t get a 2/3s decision after seven run off votes — do they start all over again?

    • Schütz says:

      Ok. That’s interesting. Perhaps you are right. I’ve read other commentary to say my interpretation is correct – but I prefer yours. It makes more sense.

    • Peregrinus says:

      “what happens if they can’t get a 2/3s decision after seven run off votes”

      I think the expectation is that the candidate who at that stage is getting less than 50% of the votes will be seen as somebody who cannot possibly accumulate enough support to reach the two-thirds barrier, and so his supporters will start to changes sides. Or, he will withdraw himself.

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