Papal elections 101

Colgate University’s Newman Community holds model conclave

By Katherine Long
Sun Editor

   HAMILTON, N.Y. — After two hours, five rounds of ballots and much thoughtful discussion March 2, 13 “cardinals” at Colgate University were able to say those much-anticipated words: “Habemus Papam! We have a Pope!”

   This past weekend, the school’s Newman Community, led by university chaplain and Catholic campus minister Deacon Mark Shiner, held a model papal conclave. The activity was an opportunity for students to learn more about the real-life process to elect a new pope and about some of the cardinals expected to undertake that task in Rome in the coming days.

   Shiner said the idea for the model conclave came to him in the days after Pope Benedict XVI’s Feb. 11 resignation announcement. “I was scheduled to give a talk [on campus] about the U.S. bishops’ response to poverty on the day the pope made his announcement,” Shiner said. After learning of the announcement, Shiner called his friend, Professor Ray Douglas, and asked if he wanted to help. “I said, ‘I’m calling an audible. Let’s spend the next four hours figuring out what this all means and do the presentation on the papal resignation instead.’ That presentation then got people asking a lot of questions about the conclave, which got me thinking, ‘How on earth do I teach this?’” Inspiration for the model conclave struck soon after.


   Shiner and students in the Newman community pulled the activity together in about a week. Male and female students and staff of all denominations — or none at all — were invited to participate. Those who registered were assigned a cardinal to represent and were asked to start researching his background, experience and stance on issues facing the Church. Before the March 2 conclave, the “cardinals” were able to learn about the election process and one another at two informational (and social) gatherings hosted by Shiner and the Newman Community; a blog for sharing news stories and profiles was also created.

   On Saturday afternoon, 13 cardinals gathered in a second-floor room in the student union. In a nod to the Sistine Chapel, where the real papal conclave will be held, an image of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” was projected on the wall. Soft chant music played in the background. And just as at the Vatican, the cardinals were asked to part with their cell phones to ensure the proceedings remained secret.

   Before conclave began, James Buttner, representing Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Austria, said he had done research on his cardinal’s biography and the committees he’d served on, as well as his relationships with other cardinals in the college. “I’m interested to see how today will play out,” said the sophomore and native of Holy Family Church in Fairmount.

   The conclave began in earnest with the locking of the outer doors. Shiner, representing Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, led each individual in the swearing of an oath of secrecy. He then reminded them of the seriousness of the day’s task, saying, “Remember that the same God who holds us in the palm of his hand also holds us responsible for the choice we will make today.” Thomas Wiley, representing Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, then led the group in a prayer for the election of a new pope.

   Each of the cardinals then cast their first ballots according to the Church’s ritual. On a slip of paper with the Latin words “I elect as the most high pontiff,” each cardinal wrote the name of his choice for pope. Each cardinal then placed the ballot on a plate at the front of the room, declaring, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who, before God, I think should be elected.” The cardinal then tipped the ballot into a bowl. Once all ballots were cast, three scrutineers reviewed and counted the slips, reading out the names. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines got the very first vote, as well as two additional votes; Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana received four votes; and several other cardinals received one or two votes. None received the necessary two-thirds majority — nine votes for this conclave — to be elected.

   Four more rounds of ballots were cast, with the cardinals periodically breaking for impressively thoughtful discussion and reflection. Each cardinal had the opportunity to introduce himself and address the issues he believed to be most pressing for the modern Church. Many cardinals spoke of the importance of evangelization — of reaching young people with the Church’s message, of continuing work to spread the Gospel around the globe, of reinvigorating the faith in parts of the world where secularism has taken its toll. Many also spoke of the need to address the clergy abuse crisis, focusing on preventing any future abuse and on healing the wounds of past abuse. Reform of the Roman Curia was another big topic, with several cardinals debating the merits of a Vatican “insider” or “outsider” leading the reform. Age and energy, pastoral experience and concern for the rights of the poor rounded out the discussions. There were also some personal tidbits thrown in: Laura Rodriguez-Perez, representing Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, mentioned her reputation as a “human internet”; Professor Ben Stahlberg, representing Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, highlighted his 20,000 Twitter followers; and Pat Gillick, representing Cardinal Tagle, talked about his love of singing Tagalog folk songs and playing guitar.

   The fifth and final ballot came down to a run-off between the two top vote-getters in the fourth ballot: Cardinals Tagle and Turkson. The cardinals paused for prayer then cast their final votes. With 11 votes, Cardinal Tagle was elected pope.

   After the election, Gillick, who represented Cardinal Tagle — now Pope Gregory XVII — said he’d enjoyed the process of preparing for and participating in the model conclave. “I am more interested in the [real] papal conclave now, after doing a lot of research on the process and learning about a number of the cardinals,” said the senior history and religious studies major. Already, Gillick, who sits on the Newman Community board, has been able to bring that knowledge to the religious education class he teaches at St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton on Sunday mornings.

   “I hope that our conclave was helpful and [that] through our deliberations we came to value certain qualities and issues that the College of Cardinals think are the important factors in selecting the next pope,” he added, noting that the experience of the model conclave would be even more meaningful should the real cardinals come to similar conclusions.

   As for his first order of business, “Pope Gregory” jokingly said he’d ban Twitter. On a more serious note, he said he’d like to reinstitute fasting on all Fridays, a practice he said would have a worldwide environmental impact and be an effective way “for Catholics to remember and be mindful of God during the week.”

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