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The Pope and the Papacy: Questions and Answers

In the aftermath of Pope John Paul II's death, Beliefnet responds to readers' questions about the leader of the Catholic Church.

Continued from page 1

As Peter's successor, the pope is first among all the bishops in the universal church, and in the theology of the Western, that is, the Roman Catholic, Church, the pope has jurisdictional authority over the bishops as well. As the first of the bishops, the pope is the Vicar of Christ that is, he is Christ's representative on earth. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit directly guides the election of every pope, and that the pope shares with the councils of bishops the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is why Catholics believe that, when speaking officially on a narrow range of doctrinal issues, the pope is infallible.



Can you explain why the pope's ring is smashed after his death?

The pope's ring, called the "Ring of the Fisherman," is a symbol of his authority. At his death, the ring is smashed, and also his papal seal, which was used during his life to authenticate his documents as genuinely his own and not forgeries. The smashing of the ring and seal were crucial in the old days, when a pope's death could conceivably be concealed by his enemies and someone could get hold of the pope's ring and claim that the pope had given him the ring as a delegation of authority. Now, the smashing of ring and seal are mostly symbolic.



What are the criteria for papal candidates?

The formal requirements are in fact very few: The candidate must be male, because he must be capable of becoming bishop of Rome, which means he must be capable of being ordained a priest, and the Catholic priesthood is open only to men. Thus even a layman could be chosen pope, indeed, even an unbaptized layman willing to be baptized and ordained. In reality, however, most popes are chosen from the College of Cardinals, which usually means they are already bishops.



What is the process for selecting the new pope?

The cardinals meet behind closed doors in the Sistine Chapel. There, they are required to cast ballots for their choice of pope every day, morning and evening. The ballots, handwritten, go into a chalice on top of the altar. After they are counted, they are burned. A two-thirds majority is needed to elect a new pope, and if they don't reach that required majority, the ballots are mixed with a chemical that produces a black smoke on burning. The smoke informs the populace outside that deliberations will continue. When the two-thirds majority is finally reached, the ballots will be burnt without the chemical, producing a white smoke that tells the people, "Habemus papam"--"We have a pope!"

But even after he has been selected, the candidate must still accept the papacy. So the dean of the College of Cardinals must ask him, still behind closed doors, if he so accepts. Once he utters the Latin word, "Accepto," he chooses the new name that he will use as pope. Then he dons white garments (several sets are typically made beforehand in various sizes) and goes to the central window of St. Peter's Basilica to greet the crowd.

We have no idea how the cardinals deliberate in the conclave or how they narrow down their choices. Absolute secrecy is its watchword, to protect the integrity of the process from influence by outsiders.

The conclave is espected to begin from 15 to 20 days after John Paul II's death.



In retrospect, it appears that Pope John Paul II was too ill at the end of his life to conduct all the duties of the papacy. What is the history of illness among popes, and is there a requirement that they step aside if they are incapacitated?

After his death, the Vatican confirmed what many people already had concluded: Pope John Paul II suffered from Parkinson's disease. Advanced cases of Parkinson's can affect the mind, and its physical effects can eventually incapacitate its victims to the point that it is painful and exhausting for them to do much serious thinking, just as it is for any gravely ill person.

A few popes have resigned in the past, although not for reasons of illness: Celestine V (d. 1296), a saintly monk who reluctantly agreed to be pope because the Holy See had been vacant for more than two years and who resigned after five months; and Gregory XII (d. 1417) who abdicated two years before his death to end the Great Schism, in which rival popes elected in Rome and Avignon respectively each claimed to be the true pope.

Presumably John Paul II could have followed their precedent, although he seemed to have chosen to remain in his see until his death as a witness to the dignity of even suffering and disabled human beings.



Is the pope's body embalmed?

Embalming the pope's body is a longstanding tradition. However, according to some news reports, Pope John Paul II's body was not embalmed, but merely touched up with cosmetics for public viewing--if true, a distinct break with tradition. The Vatican announced that the pope's body was being "prepared," and the confusion in the press may stem from differences in mortuary terminology in English and Italian. The bodies of the three popes who preceded John Paul II--John XXIII (d. 1963), Paul VI (d. 1978), and John Paul I (1978)--were all embalmed, in a procedure that involves draining the blood and other bodily fluids and intravenously injecting a preservative liquid such as formaldehyde.

Until the early 20th century, not only were popes' bodies embalmed but their internal organs were removed and those of the saintly popes were venerated as relics. Pope Pius X, who reigned from 1903 to 1914, abolished this custom.

The Vatican has not given an explanation for the break with tradition with respect to John Paul II's body.



What book was placed on the pope's coffin?

It contained the four Gospels from the New Testament.



What readings were used at the pope's funeral Mass?

The scriptural readings from Pope John Paul II's funeral Mass were:

First reading: Acts of the Apostles 10:34-43 (Peter preaches that Jesus Christ has come to save all nations).

Second reading: Paul's Letter to the Philippians 3:20-24 (Just as Christ rose with a glorified body, so shall we all).



Did the hundreds of thousands of people at the pope's funeral mass all receive Communion?

There were some 300,000 people packed into St. Peter's Square for the funeral Mass, and it is likely that the majority of those people received Communion. Hundreds of priests from all over the world were asked to help to distribute Communion.

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