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Pope selection process changed under John Paul II
By Thomas Hargrove
Scripps Howard News Service


April 01, 2005

Pope John Paul II dramatically changed - some say revolutionized - the College of Cardinals both in the men he appointed to it and the rules under which it must operate to select his successor.

In past centuries European kings and emperors handpicked their favorites to head a church that held political as well as religious sway over most of the West. Even earlier, local clergymen from the surrounding Italian countryside informally selected a bishop to serve the Diocese of Rome.

"The shepherd of the Lord's whole flock is the bishop of the church of Rome," John Paul II said in 1996 when announcing new rules for the selection of his successor. "It is therefore understandable that the lawful apostolic succession of this See ... has always been the object of particular attention."

Under the rules, the next pontiff will be chosen by an international gathering of up to 120 cardinals - all under age 80 - who must assemble at the Vatican within 20 days of John Paul's death. They must cast written ballots rather than using oral "acclamation" or any other method of potentially emotional verbal voting.

Most important, more than 80 percent of the College of Cardinals will come from countries other than Italy, a distinct change from 1939 when a majority of the college's voting members were from the Italian peninsula.

"That is an enormous difference," said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic America newspaper in New York. "It was Pope Pius XII who started internationalizing the college and it was continued under all of his successors."

Under John Paul II, who has hand-picked almost all the current voting cardinals, the international flavor of the college has so increased that Italians have become a distinct minority.

About 20 percent of the voting cardinals come from Latin America, while the continents of North America, Asia and Africa each account for 10 percent or so of the college. The Catholic Church, in terms of its highest leadership, is Roman no longer.

"The universality of the church is clearly expressed in the very composition of the College of Cardinals, whose members come from every continent," John Paul II said when announcing his rules for selecting his successor.

Among the rules:

- The College must assemble in the Sistine Chapel under the ceiling decorations of Michelangelo where, John Paul II said, "everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God." His rule decrees what had been a Vatican tradition.

- Voting members of the College shall be limited to "120 electors made up of cardinals coming from all parts of the world and from very different cultures."

- Continuation of Pope Paul VI's recommendation that voting cardinals must be 79 or younger.

- Past practices of selecting pontiffs through voice vote or by a special selection committee are strictly forbidden. "The only form by which the electors can manifest their vote ... is by secret ballot," John Paul II said.

- If the cardinals fail to give two-thirds of their votes to one candidate, the ballots "must all be burned" and a new vote taken. By tradition, the ballots are mixed with chemicals to produce black smoke so that the world may know a new pontiff has not been selected.

- If the cardinals fail to elect a pope within three days, "voting is to be suspended for a maximum of one day" to allow a period of "prayer, informal discussion and a brief spiritual exhortation by the senior cardinal."

- If cardinals are deadlocked, they are to have three sessions of seven ballots. Each session of balloting is to be followed by "additional pause for prayer, discussion and an exhortation."

- If after these 21 votes no pope has been selected, John Paul II directed that requirement for a super majority be discarded. "The election will then proceed in accordance with what the absolute majority of the electors decided," he said.


Reach Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet(at)

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