Most of the major players are cardinals and archbishops from around the world who currently hold Vatican positions.
Death and Funeral
At the death of a pope, the prefect of the papal household, a post presently held by American Archbishop James M. Harvey, informs the camerlengo, or chamberlain, Spanish Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo.
The camerlengo then verifies the death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, and the vice camerlengo, Bishop Ettore Cunial.
The custom of striking the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer to confirm his death lasted into the 20th century but is no longer followed. No autopsy is performed.
The camerlengo informs the vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, that the pope is dead, and Ruini, in turn, tells the people of Rome. The camerlengo breaks the pope's Fisherman's ring and seal and locks and seals the pope's private apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
Funeral rites are celebrated for nine consecutive days after the death with the actual funeral Mass and burial -- in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica -- taking place between the fourth and sixth day. The camerlengo arranges the funeral in keeping with instructions that were left by the pope.
Pending the election of a new pope, all but three of the cardinals and archbishops who head the congregations, councils, commissions and other bodies making up the Roman Curia, the central administrative bodies of the church, leave office. Their secretaries attend to day-to-day affairs, and decisions are provisional until confirmed by a new pope.
The exceptions are: the camerlengo, who takes charge of property and money matters; the vicar of Rome, who continues to provide for the pastoral needs of Romans; and the major penitentiary, American Cardinal Francis Stafford, the official who grants absolutions and dispensations. The camerlengo is assisted by three cardinals under the age of 80, who are chosen by lot every three days.
The Conclave Opens
The word conclave is derived from the Latin cum, meaning with, and clave, meaning key. It was first used by Pope Gregory X in July 1274 in a proclamation regulating the procedure for electing a pope in a meeting place that can be securely locked.
The conclave should open 15 days after the death of a pope but can be postponed to 20 days if circumstances warrant. All cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the new pope. Pope Paul VI limited the number of cardinal-electors to 120, but John Paul II has exceeded that number in his appointments; currently, 117 are eligible.
The cardinals live in seclusion in the recently constructed Domus Sanctae Marthae inside the Vatican walls. They meet to vote under Michelangelo's famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, which is next door to St. Peter's Basilica.
Once the conclave begins, a cardinal-elector may leave only because of illness or other serious reason accepted by a majority of his fellow cardinals. The doctors, nurses, confessors, masters of liturgical ceremonies, sacristans and various priest assistants and housekeeping and catering staff who attend to the cardinals' needs must swear never to tell anything they learn about the election.
The conclave opens in the morning with a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon, the cardinals, vested in scarlet robes, walk in procession in order of seniority from the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel to the chant of the ninth century Latin hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus."
The cardinals take an oath of secrecy. They swear to accept no interference in the election and to observe the rules set down in the Apostolic Constitution on the election of a pope. They also swear that whomever they elect will carry out the mission of pastor of the universal church and will "affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See."
The master of pontifical liturgical celebrations then orders all those not taking part or assisting in the conclave to leave, using the Latin phrase "Extra omnes" (All out). Assisted by the undersecretary of state, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, he closes off the cardinals' hotel and Sistine Chapel.