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Pope and Change – Understanding the Electoral Process and Dispelling Papal Myths

February 27, 2013

As fast as their scrutinizing little fingers can type it out, reporters and journalists all over the globe, Christian and non-Christian are covering every single facet of the events surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s relinquishment of his position as Pope and the election of the next man to take office.  The secular media is living up to its reputation by attempting to deliver the most scurrilous angle to the events as possible including framing the church as being “amidst scandal”, “scandal ridden”, or hoping for the next leader to usher in a more “progressive” set of beliefs – as if the Pope functioned as a CEO of a business and could institute a new business formula and policy.  Extreme evangelicals ironically utilizing a verified fake prophecy are calling this the sign of the end times.  So what exactly IS going on now and how exactly does it work?  Hopefully, I can offer a guideline to some of the ideas circulating about it and straighten out some misconceptions.

What does Pope Benedict mean he’s “retiring”?  I thought a Pope was a Pope until he died?

“Retiring” is a bit of a misnomer of the word Pope Benedict used in his address to announce that he was stepping down.  The word as translated from Latin as “retiring” is not exactly what the Pope is going to do.   He is relinquishing the office of Pope (the word from Latin translates as “to hand back”) but will remain in the Vatican at a cloistered monastery to continue working to pray for our Church.  A Pope can announce a resignation from the office at any time, however most do continue in the Papacy until they pass away.  (See below for more information.)

What happens when the Pope steps down (or dies)?

When a Pope dies or, as in this case steps down, a group of Cardinals called a Papal Conclave will meet behind closed doors until they are able to elect a new Pope.  These men are secluded, like a deliberating jury, for the duration of their decision making until they are able to decide, by 2/3’s majority vote, who the next Pope should be.  The Seat of Peter, i.e. – the office of the Bishop of Rome, which is the Pope, is considered sede vacante (Latin: “the seat being vacant”; lit. “vacant seat”) until such time as the election of the next Pope.  (to learn more about exactly what goes into a Papal Conclave and what the white and black smoke means, take a look at this presentation.)  Incidentally, violating the Oath of Secrecy that all Cardinals of the Conclave take is punishable by excommunication.

So who’s in charge?

The short and concise answer is a College of Cardinals along with a few individuals such as the Camerlengo and others who oversee only the ordinary, normal running of the Vatican until a new Pope is elected.  They don’t have the power to change or ‘take charge of’ the Vatican. They function more in the sense that they’re overseeing routine running of the Vatican.  They’re not the “interim boss” with unlimited access to “power” as it were.

Who can become a Pope?

Technically any baptized Catholic male can become Pope.  Realistically a Cardinal is usually elected to the office of Pope.  If a man were elected who was not already a Bishop, then he would first be consecrated Bishop of Rome, then  elected Pope.  Upon his assent to the Papal office he is asked to choose a Papal name and then lead to the Room of Tears where he changes from his Cardinal (or priestly vestments) into the white Papal vestments.

When is the last time a Pope stepped down?

Around 600 years ago!  Resignations are uncommon in the papacy, but are not altogether an unheard of event.  The last resignation was Pope Gregory XII in 1415.  A short list of resigning popes is as follows:
Pope Benedict IX (1033-44) long caused scandal to the Church by his disorderly life, freely renounced the pontificate and took the habit of a monk. He repented of his abdication and seized the papal throne again for a short time after the death of Pope Clement II, but he finally died in a private station.
His immediate successor, Pope Gregory VI (1044-46) was elected but due to unseemly circumstances surrounding his election abdicated voluntarily.
Pope St. Celestine V (1294) had been a simple hermit, and his sudden elevation found him unprepared and unfit for his exalted position. After five months of pontificate, he issued a solemn decree in which he declared that it was permissible for the Pope to abdicate, and then made an equally solemn renunciation of the papacy into the hands of the cardinals.
Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415). It was at the time of the Great Schism of the West, when two pretenders to the Chair of Peter disputed Gregory’s right to the papacy.  To put an end to the strife, the legitimate Pope Gregory renounced the pontificate at the General Council of Constance in 1415.¹

Will Benedict still be called “Pope”, have a Papal funeral, etc.?

The voluntary abdication of the office of Pope having not happened in 600 years (older than Protestantism!) leaves a little uncertainty as to proper procedure in the matter of having a former Pope still living.  The current Pope will resign to a cloistered monastery in the Vatican.  Keeping with tradition, his Papal ring will be destroyed along with the lead seal of the pontificate.  This task falls to the cardinal camerlengo and his assistants.  It was just announced he will be given the title, “Pontiff emeritus” or “Pope emeritus”.  He will keep the name of “His Holiness, Benedict XVI” and will dress in a simple white cassock without the mozzetta (elbow-length cape).   Likewise, the Pope will no longer wear the red papal shoes or mantle.²  The type of funeral for Benedict XVI has not yet been determined.

The media is speculating that the next Pope will be more “progressive” and will open the doors to controversial topics such as “gay marriage”, “women priests”, “abortion and contraception” is this true?  Can a Pope change policy?

Media understanding of Catholic doctrine and procedure shows an overwhelming ignorance in their understanding of how exactly the Church works.  These matters have already been addressed by the governing body of the Church which is the Magisterium (teaching office).  That is the bishops along with the Pope guided by the Holy Spirit and limited in their scope and power by the revealed truth of Public Revelation (i.e. – the teaching of Scripture) and Tradition.  Remember, the Church cannot make new rules up because of current social trends.  Neither can it define “new doctrine”.  Nor can the Pope.  The Magisterium works a lot like the government of the United States in that the three branches of government, Judicial, Legislative, and Executive are setup in a system of checks and balances so that one cannot supersede its authority because of the other two.  The Catholic Church is the same way in regards to its Teaching Office, Tradition, and Scripture.  One cannot override, outweigh, or counteract the others, and, in fact, all exist and rely on each other intrinsically.

There are stories circulating about this next Pope being the last Pope and that it will signal the End Time.  Is this true and where does that come from?

Good stories die-hard!  Especially good fish tails like this one.  This is a topic that has been circulated everywhere from the genuinely curious to the secular media to evangelical “End Times” ministers.  Everyone is wondering about this prophecy.  This prophecy concerns the foretelling of the names of all the Popes and that at the end of time there will be this last Pope called “Peter the Roman” and that will signal the end of the world.  Accordingly, the list of Popes in this prophecy coincides with the exact number of Pope’s we’ve had so this means the world is almost at an end.
This information is derived from a writing called The Prophecies of St. Malachy.  St. Malachy is an obscure saint who lived in the 12th century.  The problem is these writings didn’t appear until around 1400 years later in 1598 claiming to be authentic writings of St. Malachy.  In it, the writing predicted which men were to be the next Pope in very obscure, highly enigmatic two or three word descriptions like, “Pastor and sailor”, “rapacious eagle”, or, for our current Pope, “Glory of the Olive”.  Endless parades of scholars have done acrobatics to make these phrases fit the Pontiffs to which they’re ascribed with limited success.  There is no original manuscript which can be traced back to the time of St. Malachy and the work has been widely denounced as fraudulent.  The Catholic Church has put no stock in the work and no self-respecting Christian should either.  Any conjecture formulated with this work as its basis is far from credible.

 When will the Conclave of Cardinals meet and when can we expect the new Pope?

Pope Benedict has just issued a motu proprio which allows for the Conclave to meet earlier than the normal fifteen day waiting period if all voting Cardinals are present, but must begin in twenty days even if they are not all present.  The Oath of Secrecy will include the two technicians who check to make sure no audio or video equipment is present in the conclave, and that the violation of the Oath of Secrecy will result in excommunication from the Church.

On a personal note, I have been entirely grateful to a Pontiff who has taken a more conservative stance on Church theology, and who has a truly pushed for Catholics to strengthen their faith and evangelize to the world.  This Pontiff has helped promote a return to more conservative Catholic worship appropriate to our faith and I hope and pray that continues to be the case in the future.  The man himself is an extremely brilliant theologian and I believe without a doubt that his works will long continue to be studied and utilized long after he’s gone to rest.  I was saddened to learn of his resignation as the mood felt akin to his passing, but I also recognized months before his announcement that he appeared frail and looked extremely tired.  I can only guess at the enormity of weight which weighs on a Pope.  I believe that the enormity of his admirable humility can be seen from the moment he became Pope and called himself a “servant in the vineyard of God” to the fact that instead of retiring and going home where I believe his heart most wishes to be, he is submitting himself to the will of God by staying in an active role within the Church by devoting his life to monastic prayer.

I heard on the radio something someone had left in a comment on a Facebook picture of Pope Benedict that said, “When he was elected, the world called him ‘God’s Rottweiler’, but for us he was our ‘German Shepherd.’  Pray for our Church, for the leaders, and for the next Pope that all that must be will be by God’s Will and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it has been these two-thousand years in an unbroken succession from St. Peter.

Dominus tecum, Papa Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedict XVI


1. Catholic Encyclopedia –

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