Monday, March 11, 2013

Papal Elections

I first thought of doing a blog on some little known aspects of the the history of the Church while I was living in Rome and after walking home one evening from dinner with some friends.  As I passed the manica lunga of the Quirinale palace it struck me that most people think that papal elections have always taken place in the Sistine Chapel when, in fact, the regular use of the Sistine for papal conclaves is rather recent. The 1800 conclave was held in the Benedictine abbey of San Giorgio in Venice due to the French occupation of Rome. The elections of 1823, 1829, 1831, and 1846 were all held in the Pauline Chapel of the Quirinale Palace, then the principal papal residence in Rome. (At the fall of the Papal States, Pius IX abandoned the Quirinale to take up residence at the Vatican and the Quirinale became the official residence of the Italian Kings and later, with the establishment of the Italian Republic, the Presidents of Italy.
While many of the popes of the sixteenth-through the eighteenth centuries had been elected in conclaves held in the Vatican Palace, the actual elections were not necessarily in the Sistine Chapel. The Pauline Chapel (The Capella Paolina) was also used for conclaves. I have also read that the small chapel frescoed by Fra Angelico, the Chapel of Nicholas V, was used at least for the 1464 and 1534 conclaves but I find this hard to believe as the chapel probably could not hold ten cardinals standing in their underwear much less even the small number of participants (15-25) typical in that period seated in their full regalia. Before the sixteenth century popes had been elected in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, in the Lateran, in Santa Maria Maggiore, in Santa Sabina, in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Pietro in Vincoli, San Gregorio Magno, San Marco, San Pancrazio, and a ramshackle palace on the Palatine called the Septizodium. In the High Middle Ages—the 12th, 13, and 14th centuries—when the papacy was notoriously peripatetic, conclaves had been held in Perugia, Viterbo, Naples, Agnani, Bologna, Ferrara, and Pisa. Some conclaves were even outside Italy—the Abbey of Cluny and in Lyon (both in France), along with Konstanz (in Switzerland) and of course Avignon where conclaves were held in 1334, 1342, 1352, 1362, and 1370.
Paul VI had residential facilities constructed for the Cardinals participating in future conclaves rather than the makeshift accommodations that had been arranged ever since the conclaves had been moved to the Vatican from the Quirinale in the conclave of 1878. He also had a potential voting hall incorporated in the Audience Hall which he had designed by Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi, but in the interregnum after his death, the Cardinals decided that they would prefer to retain the Sistine Chapel as the place for elections.

People are surprised to discover that the Sistine Chapel has not always been the sight 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 wants 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.
So not only is the Sistine Chapel a relatively recent innovation in papal elections, but the conclave itself along with the College of Cardinals.  There are many quaint ceremonies and customs that have developed over the centuries, many of which are still functioning, but none of which are essential.  There is, for example, no reason that the College of Cardinals could not include women  Now that’s a thought. 

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