Tradition dictates Vatican's next steps

Associated Press
Published April 3, 2005

A look at the events expected in the days following a papal death.


An official nine-day mourning period, known as the novemdiales, follows the death of a pope. The tradition dates back to ancient Rome and a ceremony held nine days after death. The pope's body lies in state in St. Peter's Basilica in the Clementine Chapel, which was begun by Michelangelo and completed by Giacomo Della Porta for the Jubilee in 1600. After the death of John Paul I in 1978, an estimated 750,000 mourners filed past the body over three days. Pope John Paul II's body was expected to be taken to St. Peter's Basilica sometime late Monday, the Vatican said early today. THE FUNERAL

The funeral and burial must be held between the fourth and sixth day after death except for unspecified "special reasons," according to rules established in 1996. The College of Cardinals is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Monday, and the cardinals are expected to set a date for Pope John Paul II's funeral, probably between Wednesday and Friday. Weather permitting, it will be held in St. Peter's Square. Many of the world's leaders and other dignitaries are expected to attend. Also on hand will be many of the cardinals, who will select the new pope. During one part of the Mass, the ceremonial Swiss Guards, who wear distinctive purple, gold and red uniforms, kneel and dip their halberds with their right hands and salute with their left.


President Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan, said Saturday that the White House was awaiting word from the Vatican about funeral arrangements before announcing the makeup of the U.S. delegation, which is expected to be led by the president. The president ordered government flags to fly at half-staff until the pope is buried.


Most popes in recent centuries have chosen to be buried beneath St. Peter's Basilica. After the funeral, their lead-lined coffins, which can weigh close to a half ton, were carried through the "door of death" on the left side of the main altar in the basilica. A single bell is tolled. The coffin is lowered into a marble sarcophagus and covered by a huge stone slab. The Vatican has not clarified whether Pope John Paul II sought such a burial. There is speculation that the Polish-born pontiff may have chosen to be interred in Krakow's Wavel Cathedral alongside Polish royalty.


The cardinals, the so-called "princes" of the church, gather to elect the new pope in the Sistine Chapel, whose frescoes include the famous ceiling by Michelangelo. The conclave, derived from the Latin words meaning "with a key," must begin no sooner than 15 days after the death of the pope and not more than 20. In the past, the cardinals resided in makeshift sleeping quarters. For the next conclave, however, they will stay at St. Martha's House, a hotel-style guest facility within Vatican City. The rules of the conclave are strict: no outside contact until a pope is elected. To counter modern eavesdropping devices, technicians will sweep the ancient halls and corridors for any telltale signs of surveillance. The cardinals file into the Sistine Chapel in their blood-red robes and conduct a private Mass before the voting begins. The ballots are tied together by needle and thread and burned with chemicals to make the smoke white or black. White signals to the world that a new pontiff has been elected. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are allowed to vote. A conclave held now would have 117 papal electors.


Pope John Paul II changed the rules to make a simple majority sufficient to elect a pope if no one gets the traditional two-thirds majority after 30 rounds of voting. Once a new pope is elected, he must say ""Accepto,'' or "I accept," to make it official. The new pope chooses his papal name and dons the white robes reserved for the bishop of Rome. A senior cardinal will appear at the central window in St. Peter's Basilica and utter a sentence in Latin that ends with ""Habemus papam," meaning "We have a pope." Then he will continue in Latin and announce the name chosen by the new pope. The pope is presented to the crowds. Shortly thereafter, he will visit the nearby Cathedral Basilica of St. John Lateran, the official seat of the papacy, and return to St. Peter's for a ceremonial installation and Mass.

Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was included in this report.