Yesterday I wrote about the Sistine Chapel and other sites of papal conclaves because many people think that the Sistine Chapel has “always” been the site of papal elections. Part of the problem here is that moderns, and especially Americans, have no sense of history. If something has been done twice in the last fifty years, it is a “tradition” and one presumes that it comes directly from Jesus to the Apostles. We need to develop some good historical sense.
Let’s talk today a bit about papal elections because you may be a bit surprised about how that procedure has evolved and also because it ties into the issue of electing bishops which is something else I would really like to explore. When St. Peter was martyred in 64 AD, the Cardinals did not gather and lock themselves into the Sistine Chapel and then proceed to dump their ballots into a golden chalice placed on the altar from which they would then be counted until one had enough votes for white smoke to signal the waiting crowds that “habemus papam” we had a pope. Indeed, there were no cardinals, no Sistine Chapel, probably no golden chalice, and really not even a “pope.” As for the crowds—hey, this was a time of persecution and the small Christian community in Rome was hiding out to protect their lives. In the early centuries, Rome chose its bishop like other local Churches. The clergy met with neighboring bishops and an assembly of the faithful to elect the bishop. They usually elected one of the principle deacons of the Church, or on occasion a priest. The neighboring bishops would then lay hands on the bishop-elect, consecrating him to his new office. They did not elect a bishop to the post as through most of the early history of the Church, once a man was made bishop of a diocese he could not transfer to another diocese. A bishop was considered “married” to his diocese. This prevented the sort of ambition and careerism which has often been a problem in the Church. As American monsignori joke “no one want to be buried in the Cathedral of Peoria” meaning that many bishops always have their eye on a more important diocese.
It was Pope Nicholas II who at a synod of bishops in 1059 mandated the election of the Pope would be limited to the cardinals. It really wasn’t a departure from the practice of the time when popes were elected by the principal clergy of the diocese of Rome and the bishops of the seven suburbican dioceses. The Cardinal Deacons were the 14 principal deacons of the City of Rome—deacons of churches whose primary function was not a parish but a food distribution point for the needy or, in times of famine, for the general population. The major role of a deacon was not liturgical, but rather care for the poor and the suffering. The Cardinal priests were the parish priests (pastors) of the principal Roman Churches. The Cardinal bishops were (and are) the bishops of those seven sees that surround Rome. Up to this point an important (and actually essential) part of the election of the bishop of Rome was not only the election by the priests and deacons of the diocese, and the confirmation of the surrounding bishops, but the assent of the faithful. The clergy would meet, choose their candidate and receive the approval of the bishops and then present the newly elected bishop for the assent of the faithful. Crowds are fickle, however, and were often manipulated by the various factions—rival family/political groups vying for power—which would sway the election. This left the papacy at the mercy either of the Imperial faction (later called the Ghibellines) or what might be termed the “nationalist” party of the Counts of Tusculum or other local nobility (later called the Guelfs). Nicholas’s reform was primarily to eliminate the influence of the Roman rabble in order to bring stability and good decision making to the process—and it worked. He also wanted, as far as possible, to keep the influence of the Emperor to a minimum. This was part of what historians call the “Gregorian Reform” (after Pope Gregory VII, elected 1073 and the successor but one to Nicholas). By the twelfth century good order had been restored to the papacy and indeed the Gregorian Reform would see some of the best popes in the history of the Church, culminating with Innocent III who, in some respects, may have been the greatest pope in the history of the Church, and certainly one of the most significant.
The image today is the 13th century statue of Saint Peter attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio in Saint Peter's Basilica. It is usually dressed in Pontifical Robes twice a year June 29 the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (with the triregnum tiara) and February 22 (Hey, George Washington's birthday, what a coincidence) the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter (usually without the triregnum)