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JP Grace: Here's the process for selecting a pope

Mar. 11, 2013 @ 09:55 PM

In this period of "sede vacante" (vacant chair) at the Vatican after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, perhaps a quick question-and-answer look at the process would be helpful.

Q: Why does the Catholic church call its main leader a "pope?" What's the meaning of that word?

A: "Pope" comes from the Latin "papa," which, just as in English, means "father." That is why the pope is referred to as "the Holy Father." A pope then is the "papa" of the church's human family.

Q: If the Catholic church is Christian, as it says it is, wouldn't Christ himself be "the head of the church?"

A: Catholic doctrine agrees with that position. And thus the pope is also referred to as "the vicar of Christ," his emissary in the world. His role is to listen prayerfully to God and be obedient to the graces He receives to govern the church.

Q: If the church considers that St. Peter was the first pope, how many popes have there been in the 20-plus centuries since Jesus' time?

A: Though some periods of papal history can be a bit fuzzy -- for instance, in the 13th century there was a time when three different men claimed to be pope -- the most frequently cited number given is 265.

Q: How is a new pope going to be chosen?

A: Some 115 cardinals from around the world, those cardinals who are less than 80 years old, are now meeting in what's called "a conclave" in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. They will listen to talks presenting different men from their ranks as candidates, and they will vote up to twice a day.

A two-thirds majority is needed for election.

Q: How long will this process take?

A: Probably a matter of days or at most weeks. The hope at the Vatican is that a new pope will be chosen before Easter, and will thus be able to give his Easter blessing address "to the church and to the world."

Q:Q Isn't getting elected pope a matter of playing politics and getting the right people to back your campaign?

A: That's the stereotype. However when he was elected pope in April 2005 to succeed a very beloved Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was not elated but somewhat disappointed -- and fearful. He later told a group of German pilgrims it was like "the ax was going to fall on me, and my head began to spin." He even said he begged God: "Do not do this to me!"

He had felt his earthly work was done and he was looking forward to a peaceful retirement in his native Bavaria. A brother cardinal, however, wrote to him and urged, "Do not refuse! Be obedient." Thus, he said, "in the end I had to say 'yes.' I trust in the Lord. A Christian is never alone."

Q: What kind of person are the cardinals looking for to take over from Benedict XVI?

A: The depictions heard most often center on someone who is "humble, free from any taint of scandal, a visionary leader, a good administrator, able to dialog with the leaders of the Orthodox and Protestant worlds, with Jews and also with non-Christian religions, and a man of holiness and submission to the whispers of the Holy Spirit."

And now we can only wait until white smoke instead of black issues forth from the chimney atop the Sistine chapel and a Vatican official steps onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, where thousands of watchers gather daily, to announce: "Habemus papam!" "We have a pope!"

John Patrick Grace covered the Vatican for The Associated Press in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He currently is a book editor and publisher based in Huntington.

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