On electing popes and abbots

While the election of a new abbot for Saint Anselm Abbey last June and the current election of a new pope are hardly commensurate, there are some interesting parallels, albeit some key differences as well.  In both cases, the new leader for ecclesiastical office is chosen by election in a setting where the electors are closed off from the world for the balloting, and once the balloting is concluded the news of the election is made known in a ritualized way.

The abstract comparison however obscures the charm of each process.

One key difference is that the 25 monks of Saint Anselm’s elected an abbot for themselves, whereas the 115 cardinals elect a supreme pontiff for the entire church.  The abbatial election took place in the monastery’s old choir chapel, which while very nice, is not a world class venue like the Sistine Chapel.  Within the chapels, both monk-electors and cardinal-electors follow a ritualized procedure for voting secretly, with obviously 25 monks voting more quickly through one round of voting than the 100 plus cardinals.  All of the electors for the abbatial election were Benedictines, none of the cardinals are (though some are members of religious orders, Franciscan, Jesuit, Salesian, etc.).

For both popes and abbots, a two thirds majority is initially required. However, for the abbatial election, you shift to a simple majority after the third ballot.  As there cannot be more than six ballots, the last three are simple majority.  For the cardinals the dynamic is very different.  They always need a two thirds majority for a valid election, and while the balloting may pause for a day, the cardinal electors remain in conclave until a pope is elected.  The longest election in the modern era was 1922’s conclave which elected Pope Pius XI.  That election lasted five days, with 14 ballots.  (Interestingly, Pope John Paul II had introduced a provision whereby the cardinal electors could change the rules of election after 12 days of inconclusive balloting.  They would only have needed a simple majority to do so, but could have thus changed the two-thirds rule.  This provision was in place for the 2005 conclave, but removed later by Pope Benedict XVI.  This current conclave will then continue until someone reaches the two-thirds majority.)

After a valid election and the acceptance of the election by the pope or abbot, an announcement needs to be made to the larger community.  In the monastic tradition, bells are rung and the monks process into the abbey church, with the larger community realizing who the newly elected abbot as they espy the last monk in the procession, now wearing a pectoral cross for the first time.  While this procedure has a certain drama, the Roman tradition is justifiably more ritualized and grand.  White smoke appears from the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican bells are rung.  The senior cardinal deacon appears on the balcony and makes gives the famous Habemus Papam address.  The new pope, vested in white papal robes, shortly thereafter emerges to bless the assembled crowds.  In both the abbey church and Saint Peter’s Square, the assembled faithful respond with joy at the news of the election.

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2 Responses to On electing popes and abbots

  1. Tammy Hastings says:

    Do Benedictine cardinals ever participate in the conclave?

    • brotherisaac says:

      Yes they do. In this year’s conclave there were simply no cardinals who were Benedictines. Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, the Archbishop of Westminster, participated in the two conclaves of 1978. In previous centuries, some Benedictine cardinals who participated in conclaves, ended up being elected pope.

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