Conclave, then and now

Then

The death of Pope Clement IV on 29 November 1268 began a papal interregnum of almost three years, until Teobaldo Visconti was elected on 1 September 1271, then crowned with the name of Pope Gregory X on 27 March 1272. Conclave, the tradition of isolating the cardinal—electors by locking them behind closed doors 'with a key (cum clave)' began as a response to this extraordinary circumstance. 

The tale is fascinating, and begins with the election of Clement, born Guido le Gros, a Frenchman, knight, and advisor to Louis IX, King of France, before turning to religion after the death of his wife. Clement's brief reign (5 February 1265 to 29 November, 1268) had been taken up almost exclusively with political matters, because he had been elected on the basis of a political calculation that the Church should enlist the aid of Charles of Anjou, the youngest brother of King Louis IX of France, in its war against the Hohenstaufens. A reaction was inevitable and came after Clement's death, when the fifteen papal electors were so divided between Frenchmen who wanted another Clement and Italians who wanted to sever the French connection, that the required two—thirds majority could not be attained.

Enter Br. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Italian, Franciscan, Master of Theology at the University of Paris, and since 1257 Minister General of the Franciscans. In the Fall of 1268, Bonaventure was in Assisi.

Upon news of the death of Clement, Bonaventure walked — for that was the only way Franciscans were allowed to travel, they could not even ride horses or mules — from Assisi to Viterbo, where Clement had died and where the cardinal electors were assembling.  There on 16 December 1268 he preached 'before his brothers at Viterbo, while the papal see was vacant, namely, after Clement IV.' The full text of the sermon no longer exists but the copyists preserved an outline of it. Conclave was yet to be created, so there can be no doubt the cardinal electors heard him.

The outlines of the coming conflict between them already were clear to Bonaventure, who preached on John the Baptist.  

'I am a voice crying in the wilderness,' [John 1:23].  The holy and sanctified precursor makes two points with these words: first, he acknowledges the humility of his own office, at 'I am a voice'; and second he expresses the authority of his own jurisdiction, at 'crying in the desert.'

Surely Bonaventure thought of himself as a voice crying in a wilderness of overly politicized cardinals.  And in pointing to the 'humility' and the 'authority' of John, he was reminding them of the need to elect a man of 'humility' to exercise the awesome 'jurisdiction' of papal power.

And of course, there is also the implication that humility would not be out of place among the cardinal electors themselves.  Bonaventure went on to outline eight traits of John the Baptist, implying the electors should look for these traits in a new pope.  

"Now John was a voice of security and constancy by reason of the unchangeableness of his holy life. ... And John was a voice of tranquility and concord by reason of the sweetness of his inner piety.

... And John was the voice of humility and patience by reason of his mind and person. ... And John was the voice of purity and sanctity by reason of his promoting celibacy and modesty."

What is remarkable about this list is that these are not the virtues of a powerful political leader such as Clement IV had been.  Bonaventure's task was to point out a new direction, toward the kind of moral and spiritual values now needed in a new pope. 

The cardinal—electors sat in disagreement in the papal palace during the next two and one half years, exhibiting the opposite traits from those Bonaventure had set out: political discord, pride, and plotting that produced insecurity.  The roof of the palace was removed and they were put on a diet of bread and water to try to expedite their deliberations, thus beginning the process now known as conclave.

But the cardinals did not forget Bonaventure's sermon, and when they had grown desperate they turned to him.  Bartholomew of Pisa, writing a chronicle about 1385, tells the story this way:

'Brother Bonventure of Balnoregio ... had such a fine reputation when he was General that, when there was discord over the election of the lord Pope in Perugia, all [the electors] freely give over their own votes to him, so that if he nominated himself or another to be Pope, they would elect him; and then he nominated that completely holy man, lord Gregory X.'

Bonaventure refused the offer for himself, gave the cardinals the name of Teobaldo, then on crusade in Palestine, who returned, accepted, took the name of Gregory after Gregory IX, the cardinal protector of the Franciscan order early in the century, and appointed Bonaventure cardinal.  Gregory then institutionalized conclave for the election of his successor, a process that continues to this day.

Now
 
One thing the story of the invention of conclave points out is that the custom of using sermons to give advice to the papal electors is precisely as old as conclave itself. One natural place to look for such advice is in the sermons of the novendiales, the nine day 'novena' of masses for the deceased pontiff that precede conclave, an equally ancient custom.

The sermons preached by cardinal electors for John Paul II have been, first and foremost, thanks for the life of the man the people of Rome and the world who attended his funeral seem already to have judged to possess the 'heroic' virtues required for sanctity. Witness the banners that read 'saint, now (santo subito).'

But the traits of the late pontiff that the cardinals have chosen to emphasize in their sermons also tell us something about the traits they think important in the next man, just as the traits of John the Baptist which Bonaventure chose to emphasize in 1268 were the ones he thought the cardinal electors then should heed. What picture have the cardinal drawn in their sermons?

In his sermon for 3 April 2005, Divine Mercy Sunday, just two days after John Paul's death and well before the funeral, Card. Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, set the tone:

"Indeed, John Paul II, John Paul the Great, thus became the champion of the civilization of love, seeing in this term one of the most beautiful definitions of the "Christian civilization." Yes, the Christian civilization is a civilization of love, radically different from that civilization of hate which Nazism and Communism proposed."

At least publically, Vatican Secretaries of State are not given to hyperbole; yet here was the most extraordinary statement.  Though there have been outstanding popes in the intervening centuries, the term 'great' has been reserved for two early popes, based on the way they had dealt with the overwhelming barbarity of their times: Leo I ( 461), who faced down Attila the Hun, and Gregory I ( 604), who did much the same thing in the face of Lombard invaders.

Cardinal Sodano then points out why John Paul deserves to be ranked 'great': because against all odds he succeeded in the face of the barbarity of 'Nazism and Communism.' Such success depended on his personal courage, to be sure, but also on the Catholic morality that fed and formed that courage. The lesson is clear: the next papacy must find its intellectual and moral base in that same tradition, the moral lessons of Vatican II having been definitively interpreted by John Paul II as being in line with, not a departure from, the ancient Catholic tradition.   

Next, in a heartfelt but exceedingly subtle funeral sermon delivered on 8 April, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, and the man personally responsible for preservation of that tradition of 'faith and morals,' elaborated on Sodano's theme.  The development is very personal, appropriate for a funeral homily.  Cardinal Ratzinger looked to the words of the risen Christ to Peter: 'Follow me,' and he interpreted them using three scriptural texts the Pope himself repeatedly employed to explain Christ's meaning. 

First, 'abide in love' (John 15:9) is an emblem of John Paul's 'civilization of love.' John Paul stood face to face with what he himself called 'the culture of death,' as found in Nazism during World War II and in Communism before Poland was liberated, which Cardinal Sodano had mentioned, but also in the present day 'culture of death,' especially in Europe and North America.

The lesson for the next papacy is clear: confronting the contemporary culture of death did not end with the fall of communism in Europe, and dealing with it is the premier task for the first pope of the 'third millenium.'

There are two more features of 'follow me.' 

'You did not choose me, I chose you' (John 15:16), movingly illustrated by looking at each stage of John Paul's life: the student who became priest; the teacher—priest who became bishop and cardinal; the Polish cardinal who became pope.  The lesson: in 1978 God taught the cardinal electors a lesson.  They may have chosen John Paul I, as good a man as he may personally have been; but God chose John Paul II, who did not want the papacy but acceded to that divine choice. 

The third text is 'the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep' (John 10:11), poignantly illuminated by the sufferings of John Paul II, especially in his later years, which are still so fresh in the minds of the curia officials who worked closely with him. But there is also a lesson for the cardinal—electors: a successor whose life has been difficult, who has been forced to undergo the tough experiences of suffering for the Church, will be shaped by those sufferings into the kind of person who can endure the difficult road ahead.  It is not a time in the Church for a leader whose life has been relatively easy.

Then on Sunday, 10 April, Cardinal Ruini, Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome, reminded the world and the electors of the fact that John Paul had visited 317 of the 333 Roman dioceses, among many other duties as bishop of Rome.  The lesson: like John Paul, the next pope should be a true pastor.  The time for bishops who talk mainly to each other in episcopal conferences that produce papers but do not convert souls is over.  Then on 12 April, Cardinal De Araujo Sales, emeritus archbishop of Rio de Janeiro and Proto—presbyter of the College of Cardinals, in his homily quoted a central passage from John Paul's first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (1979), one that set out the moral foundation for his subsequent acts as bishop and pope:

"The redemption of the world — this tremendous mystery of love in which creation is renewed — is, at its deepest root, the fullness of justice in a human heart —the heart of the first—born Son — in order that it may become justice in the hearts of many human beings' [sec. 9].

John Paul offered justice to the hearts of all, based upon the redemption of the world.  'This is why the Holy Father has taught with such ardor faithfulness to the doctrine of Christ.'  The lesson repeats those of Cardinal Sodano and Ratzinger, but using the words of John Paul himself.  The new pope should believe that redemption comes through justice which is achieved by adherence to the 'doctrine' — and especially the moral doctrine — 'of Christ.' 

These sermons are remarkably similar in the portrait they paint of John Paul II and, by implication, in the advice the homilists are giving their fellow cardinal—electors.  There is no hint that they expect the next pope to be a man of monumental stature as was John Paul; these men are realists. 

But what emerges from the homilies is fairly clear:

(1) Abandon all thoughts of political calculation.  Italian or non; European or non; new world or old; such considerations are no longer relevant. Christ has said 'follow me.'

(2) The papacy of John Paul has defined the true meaning of Vatican II; there can be no abandonment of the Catholic moral tradition, no return to the doubts entertained immediately after Vatican II, which led in this country to the priest scandals.

(3) The challenge of today is first and foremost to deal with the 'culture of death' in the so—called 'developed world.' How this is to be done is the first task for the next papacy. 

(4) Suffering for the Church, that is, on John Paul's conception, for the faithful, is the fire that will have forged and will forge the soul of the leader of the 'new evangelization,' the unfinished task of the last papacy. 

This is the hardest lesson of all for the contemporary world; and may well be hardest for the papal electors, who perforce live in that world.

Ed Houser teaches philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, and is an occasional contributor to The American Thinker

Then

The death of Pope Clement IV on 29 November 1268 began a papal interregnum of almost three years, until Teobaldo Visconti was elected on 1 September 1271, then crowned with the name of Pope Gregory X on 27 March 1272. Conclave, the tradition of isolating the cardinal—electors by locking them behind closed doors 'with a key (cum clave)' began as a response to this extraordinary circumstance. 

The tale is fascinating, and begins with the election of Clement, born Guido le Gros, a Frenchman, knight, and advisor to Louis IX, King of France, before turning to religion after the death of his wife. Clement's brief reign (5 February 1265 to 29 November, 1268) had been taken up almost exclusively with political matters, because he had been elected on the basis of a political calculation that the Church should enlist the aid of Charles of Anjou, the youngest brother of King Louis IX of France, in its war against the Hohenstaufens. A reaction was inevitable and came after Clement's death, when the fifteen papal electors were so divided between Frenchmen who wanted another Clement and Italians who wanted to sever the French connection, that the required two—thirds majority could not be attained.

Enter Br. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Italian, Franciscan, Master of Theology at the University of Paris, and since 1257 Minister General of the Franciscans. In the Fall of 1268, Bonaventure was in Assisi.

Upon news of the death of Clement, Bonaventure walked — for that was the only way Franciscans were allowed to travel, they could not even ride horses or mules — from Assisi to Viterbo, where Clement had died and where the cardinal electors were assembling.  There on 16 December 1268 he preached 'before his brothers at Viterbo, while the papal see was vacant, namely, after Clement IV.' The full text of the sermon no longer exists but the copyists preserved an outline of it. Conclave was yet to be created, so there can be no doubt the cardinal electors heard him.

The outlines of the coming conflict between them already were clear to Bonaventure, who preached on John the Baptist.  

'I am a voice crying in the wilderness,' [John 1:23].  The holy and sanctified precursor makes two points with these words: first, he acknowledges the humility of his own office, at 'I am a voice'; and second he expresses the authority of his own jurisdiction, at 'crying in the desert.'

Surely Bonaventure thought of himself as a voice crying in a wilderness of overly politicized cardinals.  And in pointing to the 'humility' and the 'authority' of John, he was reminding them of the need to elect a man of 'humility' to exercise the awesome 'jurisdiction' of papal power.

And of course, there is also the implication that humility would not be out of place among the cardinal electors themselves.  Bonaventure went on to outline eight traits of John the Baptist, implying the electors should look for these traits in a new pope.  

"Now John was a voice of security and constancy by reason of the unchangeableness of his holy life. ... And John was a voice of tranquility and concord by reason of the sweetness of his inner piety.

... And John was the voice of humility and patience by reason of his mind and person. ... And John was the voice of purity and sanctity by reason of his promoting celibacy and modesty."

What is remarkable about this list is that these are not the virtues of a powerful political leader such as Clement IV had been.  Bonaventure's task was to point out a new direction, toward the kind of moral and spiritual values now needed in a new pope. 

The cardinal—electors sat in disagreement in the papal palace during the next two and one half years, exhibiting the opposite traits from those Bonaventure had set out: political discord, pride, and plotting that produced insecurity.  The roof of the palace was removed and they were put on a diet of bread and water to try to expedite their deliberations, thus beginning the process now known as conclave.

But the cardinals did not forget Bonaventure's sermon, and when they had grown desperate they turned to him.  Bartholomew of Pisa, writing a chronicle about 1385, tells the story this way:

'Brother Bonventure of Balnoregio ... had such a fine reputation when he was General that, when there was discord over the election of the lord Pope in Perugia, all [the electors] freely give over their own votes to him, so that if he nominated himself or another to be Pope, they would elect him; and then he nominated that completely holy man, lord Gregory X.'

Bonaventure refused the offer for himself, gave the cardinals the name of Teobaldo, then on crusade in Palestine, who returned, accepted, took the name of Gregory after Gregory IX, the cardinal protector of the Franciscan order early in the century, and appointed Bonaventure cardinal.  Gregory then institutionalized conclave for the election of his successor, a process that continues to this day.

Now
 
One thing the story of the invention of conclave points out is that the custom of using sermons to give advice to the papal electors is precisely as old as conclave itself. One natural place to look for such advice is in the sermons of the novendiales, the nine day 'novena' of masses for the deceased pontiff that precede conclave, an equally ancient custom.

The sermons preached by cardinal electors for John Paul II have been, first and foremost, thanks for the life of the man the people of Rome and the world who attended his funeral seem already to have judged to possess the 'heroic' virtues required for sanctity. Witness the banners that read 'saint, now (santo subito).'

But the traits of the late pontiff that the cardinals have chosen to emphasize in their sermons also tell us something about the traits they think important in the next man, just as the traits of John the Baptist which Bonaventure chose to emphasize in 1268 were the ones he thought the cardinal electors then should heed. What picture have the cardinal drawn in their sermons?

In his sermon for 3 April 2005, Divine Mercy Sunday, just two days after John Paul's death and well before the funeral, Card. Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, set the tone:

"Indeed, John Paul II, John Paul the Great, thus became the champion of the civilization of love, seeing in this term one of the most beautiful definitions of the "Christian civilization." Yes, the Christian civilization is a civilization of love, radically different from that civilization of hate which Nazism and Communism proposed."

At least publically, Vatican Secretaries of State are not given to hyperbole; yet here was the most extraordinary statement.  Though there have been outstanding popes in the intervening centuries, the term 'great' has been reserved for two early popes, based on the way they had dealt with the overwhelming barbarity of their times: Leo I ( 461), who faced down Attila the Hun, and Gregory I ( 604), who did much the same thing in the face of Lombard invaders.

Cardinal Sodano then points out why John Paul deserves to be ranked 'great': because against all odds he succeeded in the face of the barbarity of 'Nazism and Communism.' Such success depended on his personal courage, to be sure, but also on the Catholic morality that fed and formed that courage. The lesson is clear: the next papacy must find its intellectual and moral base in that same tradition, the moral lessons of Vatican II having been definitively interpreted by John Paul II as being in line with, not a departure from, the ancient Catholic tradition.   

Next, in a heartfelt but exceedingly subtle funeral sermon delivered on 8 April, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, and the man personally responsible for preservation of that tradition of 'faith and morals,' elaborated on Sodano's theme.  The development is very personal, appropriate for a funeral homily.  Cardinal Ratzinger looked to the words of the risen Christ to Peter: 'Follow me,' and he interpreted them using three scriptural texts the Pope himself repeatedly employed to explain Christ's meaning. 

First, 'abide in love' (John 15:9) is an emblem of John Paul's 'civilization of love.' John Paul stood face to face with what he himself called 'the culture of death,' as found in Nazism during World War II and in Communism before Poland was liberated, which Cardinal Sodano had mentioned, but also in the present day 'culture of death,' especially in Europe and North America.

The lesson for the next papacy is clear: confronting the contemporary culture of death did not end with the fall of communism in Europe, and dealing with it is the premier task for the first pope of the 'third millenium.'

There are two more features of 'follow me.' 

'You did not choose me, I chose you' (John 15:16), movingly illustrated by looking at each stage of John Paul's life: the student who became priest; the teacher—priest who became bishop and cardinal; the Polish cardinal who became pope.  The lesson: in 1978 God taught the cardinal electors a lesson.  They may have chosen John Paul I, as good a man as he may personally have been; but God chose John Paul II, who did not want the papacy but acceded to that divine choice. 

The third text is 'the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep' (John 10:11), poignantly illuminated by the sufferings of John Paul II, especially in his later years, which are still so fresh in the minds of the curia officials who worked closely with him. But there is also a lesson for the cardinal—electors: a successor whose life has been difficult, who has been forced to undergo the tough experiences of suffering for the Church, will be shaped by those sufferings into the kind of person who can endure the difficult road ahead.  It is not a time in the Church for a leader whose life has been relatively easy.

Then on Sunday, 10 April, Cardinal Ruini, Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome, reminded the world and the electors of the fact that John Paul had visited 317 of the 333 Roman dioceses, among many other duties as bishop of Rome.  The lesson: like John Paul, the next pope should be a true pastor.  The time for bishops who talk mainly to each other in episcopal conferences that produce papers but do not convert souls is over.  Then on 12 April, Cardinal De Araujo Sales, emeritus archbishop of Rio de Janeiro and Proto—presbyter of the College of Cardinals, in his homily quoted a central passage from John Paul's first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (1979), one that set out the moral foundation for his subsequent acts as bishop and pope:

"The redemption of the world — this tremendous mystery of love in which creation is renewed — is, at its deepest root, the fullness of justice in a human heart —the heart of the first—born Son — in order that it may become justice in the hearts of many human beings' [sec. 9].

John Paul offered justice to the hearts of all, based upon the redemption of the world.  'This is why the Holy Father has taught with such ardor faithfulness to the doctrine of Christ.'  The lesson repeats those of Cardinal Sodano and Ratzinger, but using the words of John Paul himself.  The new pope should believe that redemption comes through justice which is achieved by adherence to the 'doctrine' — and especially the moral doctrine — 'of Christ.' 

These sermons are remarkably similar in the portrait they paint of John Paul II and, by implication, in the advice the homilists are giving their fellow cardinal—electors.  There is no hint that they expect the next pope to be a man of monumental stature as was John Paul; these men are realists. 

But what emerges from the homilies is fairly clear:

(1) Abandon all thoughts of political calculation.  Italian or non; European or non; new world or old; such considerations are no longer relevant. Christ has said 'follow me.'

(2) The papacy of John Paul has defined the true meaning of Vatican II; there can be no abandonment of the Catholic moral tradition, no return to the doubts entertained immediately after Vatican II, which led in this country to the priest scandals.

(3) The challenge of today is first and foremost to deal with the 'culture of death' in the so—called 'developed world.' How this is to be done is the first task for the next papacy. 

(4) Suffering for the Church, that is, on John Paul's conception, for the faithful, is the fire that will have forged and will forge the soul of the leader of the 'new evangelization,' the unfinished task of the last papacy. 

This is the hardest lesson of all for the contemporary world; and may well be hardest for the papal electors, who perforce live in that world.

Ed Houser teaches philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, and is an occasional contributor to The American Thinker