Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the February AD 2003
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question:  Who was Pope after Saint Peter and how was he chosen? How are Popes elected and crowned today?

    Answer: Historians are generally in agreement that Saint Peter named his own successor, a practice not generally followed by future Popes, although one or two did try, most lists of papal succession give Saint Linus as Peter's immediate replacement, although the Liber Pontificalis (LP), has Peter consecrating Saints Linus, Cletus, and Clement as what we would today call "auxiliary" bishops, and naming Clement to replace him at his death.1 The same list has Saint Anacletus following Clement, but most modern historians feel that he was the same person as Saint Cletus (in spite of being born in a different city according to LP, and in spite of having a separate feast day in the Roman Missal until well into the twentieth century). The important thing, of course, was that the papal power was passed down in an orderly manner.

    It appears, though, that following Clement, the bishops of Rome were generally chosen by the survivors rather than being appointed by the previous Pope. LP indicates the length of the vacancy following the death of the remaining Popes; something that would be impossible to have if a hand picked successor was waiting to assume the papacy. Records are extremely sketchy, but it seems clear that the early Popes were elected by the general body of Christians in Rome. During the years of persecution, before Constantine legalized Christianity in the Empire, this was a manageable solution -- Rome was big city by ancient standards -- perhaps 400,000 at the time of Christ -- but the Christian population, recruited in secret by word of mouth, was occasionally thinned out by execution (or apostasy). And since the recently deceased Pope had generally been killed by the authorities, only the braver souls would have ventured forth to elect a new one. By modern standards, the election of Popes remained rather ad hoc for a number of centuries.

    Even when Christianity became legal and had increased dramatically in numbers, the Roman populace continued to exercise their right to elect their Popes, just as the Christians in other cities continued to elect their bishops. Nonetheless, the Roman clergy and the aristocracy contributed to the decision, as did the Emperor. The idea of restricting the election to the clergy didn't take hold until 1059, and even then the crowd and the important families might influence an election. And the Emperors continued to exercise a veto right over candidates thought to be unsuitable until the pontificate of Pope Saint Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century.

    By the tenth century things had gotten out of hand. Theophylact, the commander-in-chief of the imperial forces at Ravenna, and his descendents controlled most of the appointments to the papacy between 904 and 964. His wife Theodora and daughter Marozia were illicitly linked to several popes. Marozia's son reigned as John XI (931-935) while in his early twenties, and her great-grandson ruled as John XII (955-964) at eighteen. Clearly. reform was in order, and had to start at the highest levels of the Church.

    Nicholas II made a clear assertion of the clergy's independence in selecting the Church's supreme head. In April 1059, at a council in the Lateran he issued a decree that placed the responsibility for electing future popes exclusively in the hands of the cardinal-bishops, upon consultation with the lower cardinals, clergy and people. "Due honor and reverence" were reserved for the emperor, whose role in all of this was unspecified. Possibly it was hoped that he would be satisfied with protecting the City from foreign powers during the interregnum.

    Thereafter, only the cardinal-bishops voted to elect the pope. The Cardinal Priest, Deusdedit, active in obtaining the same privilege for the other cardinals, went so far as to alter the decree of 1059 in his collection of canonical writings, referring to the cardinal-bishops simply as Cardinals. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council recognized all of the cardinals as electors in the decree Licet de evitanda.

    The men today called Cardinals were originally the clergy of Rome. The bishops of the suburban sees around Rome: Ostia (the most important), Albano, Frascati, Palestrina, Porto and Santa Rufina, Sabina, and Velletri came to be called cardinal bishops. The pope also had seven priests responsible for maintaining each of the four major basilicas of Rome: St. Peter's, St. Paul's, St. Mary Major, and St. Lawrence; these twenty eight formed the cardinal priesthood. The Roman archdeacon, together with six municipal deacons and twelve suburban deacons, constituted the cardinal diaconate. For many centuries these men were all resident in Rome (although the powerful monarchs of Europe had their share of representatives) and did not exceed the theoretical maximum of 54.

    Yet, the Roman mob would occasionally still have its say. Gregory VII, elected in 1073 (less than fifteen years after the decree of Nicholas II and the Lateran Council) was chosen by popular acclamation. When the Popes finally returned to Rome from Avignon, Urban VI (1378-1389) was elected by the Cardinals under the direct threat of mob violence -- an election that some would later repudiate, beginning the Western Schism.2 And occasionally the locals would hasten the cardinals if they took too long before electing a Pope -- during the conclave that elected Blessed Pope Gregory X (1271-1276) the crowd threw rocks at the cardinals, cut off their food and water supplies, and removed the roof of the building in which they were meeting!3

    It should surprise no one that one of Blessed Gregory's acts was to specify a more rigorous procedure for the swift completion of future elections. The decree Ubi periculum required that the cardinals assemble in secret conclave within ten days where the previous Pope died; they were to be kept from contact with the outside world, and would have their food supplies reduced after a reasonable period of time.4

    Over the years the conclave rules have been changed by succeeding Popes -- rules about who may enter, how votes are to be cast, and how many are required. Pope Saint Pius X finally eliminated the voice of the Emperor in an election only in the early twentieth century. The most current rules were issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996. For a long time Cardinals have been chosen from among the nations, usually numbering more than 54; modern canon law requires that they be at least priests.

    1.  Raymond Davis, trans., Liber Pontificalis (Liverpool University Press, 1989), p. 2.
    2.  See Parish Bulletin, June 1996
    3.  See Parish Bulletin, June 1997
    4.  JND Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p.198.

We've added the conclusion of this article, from the March AD 2003 Parish Bulletin, below
The footnote numbers begin again at "1" to preserve uniformity with the printed edition.


Continued from February: How are Popes elected and crowned?

    In modern times we have become accustomed to seeing Popes elected from among the more notable Cardinals of the Church -- men who have been bishops for some time. In the early Church this was not the case:

    It was traditional that a bishop should remain in the diocese to which he was consecrated for his lifetime. By custom the bishop was chosen from among the people who lived in the diocese and, in the early days, he could be anything from a layman to a priest. The decree ... by Pope Stephen IV (768-772) that the Bishop of Rome had to come from the cardinalate limited the papacy.... The first bishop to become pope was Formosus, the cardinal-bishop of suburbicarian Porto, who reigned from 891-896. Because he was a cardinal, there wasn't much question about his giving up one diocese to take over another. In effect, he was a suffragan bishop of Rome who had moved up.

    [The famous cardinal-deacon] Hildebrand ... did not become a priest until his ordination was necessary in order for him to become bishop-pope of Rome as Gregory VII [in 1073].

    Thus, for roughly the first half of the Church's history, the most important ceremony marking the installation of a newly elected Pope was his consecration as a bishop. The coronation of Popes could not have taken place until there was a papal crown, which didn't come into use in its simplest form until about the tenth century. The white cap that marked the Pope as a dignitary of the Imperial court came to be decorated with circular crowns, a total of three by somewhere in the fourteenth century.

    Some contemporary polemicists, trying to impugn the validity of Pope John Paul II's papacy maintain that he was the first Pope to refuse the "papal coronation oath." For a period of time following the condemnation of Pope Honorius I for monothelitism -- "from the eighth century to the eleventh" -- newly elected Popes were required to swear an oath prior to their consecration. The Liber diurnus in which the oath was found, together with the oath itself, seem to have gone out of use at roughly the time Gregory VII became Pope. It is in this time period that Gregory and his successors assert their independence from the Imperial authorities and begin to wear crowns. Gregory's appreciation of his papal dignity was quite incompatible with having to make promises to any lesser authority of Church or state. No trace of the oath is found in modern accounts of papal coronations, and an account written in 1955 categorically stated that in "the act of Coronation. [t]here are no oaths, no special liturgical ceremonies."

    If anything, the consecration oath and its condemnation of Pope Honorius was something of an embarrassment to the Church in later centuries, erroneously seeming to some as a contradiction of papal infallibility, and raising once again the theory that a Pope is subject to a general council. A critical edition of the Liber diurnus was suppressed, on account of the oath, and the lesson at Matins on the Feast of Leo II, critical of Honorius, was revised:

    13. In the lesson for the feast of St. Leo II. in the Roman Breviary the name of Pope Honorius occurs among those excommunicated by the Sixth Synod. Upon this we may well hear Bossuet: "They suppress as far as they can, the Liber Diurnus: they have erased this from the Roman Breviary. Have they therefore hidden it? Truth breaks out from all sides, and these things become so much the more evident, as they are the more studiously put out of sight."

    Of course, in recent centuries almost all Popes have been consecrated as bishops before their election to the papacy. That rite includes a detailed public interrogation of the bishop-elect's belief in the Catholic Faith. The second question proposed to him -- which he must answer, "I will," if the consecration is to proceed is:

    Will you reverently receive, teach, and keep the traditions of the orthodox Fathers and the decreetals of the Holy and Apostolic See?

If he is a bishop, the newly elected Pope takes office immediately on accepting the election. (If he is not a bishop, he will be consecrated at the earliest reasonable time -- usually by the Bishop of Ostia, preserving the tradition that a metropolitan archbishop is consecrated by his most notable suffragan bishop.) But until recently, a coronation ceremony was held to publicly mark the ascension of the new Pope to the throne of Peter.

    The coronation itself is a brief ceremony, but it follows the celebration of Pontifical Mass with all its glory. An elaborate procession of just about everyone of importance in Rome and the Catholic Church begins the ceremony -- at one time literally a "cavalcade" of dignitaries on horseback, and still the most elaborate and well organized ceremony in the world.

    First come the religious; the mendicants, the monks, and the canons regular. Then come the Roman secular clergy; from the parishes, collegiate churches, and patriarchal basilicas. Then the papal household; the Swiss Guard, the confessors, and the chamberlains, and the chaplains, the judges of the Signatura and the Rota, and a number of other "intimates" of the Pope. The procession is in order of increasing rank, so next come Abbots, Penitentiaries of St. Peter's, Bishops, Archbishops, Patriarchs, the three ranks of Cardinals. Finally there come the clergy who will actually assist the Pope at Mass, followed by the Holy Father himself on the Sedia Gestatoria carried by a dozen men and surrounded by few dozen other attendants and dignitaries.

    From the Vatican Palace to the portico of St. Peter's; to its chapel of the Blessed Sacrament for a few minutes in prayer before the monstrance; on to the chapel of St. Gregory to receive the obedience of the Cardinals, sing the Hour of Terce, and vest in the tunic, dalmatic, and chasuble of pontifical Mass. The procession to the main altar is interrupted three times as the Master of Ceremonies holds a long reed of burning flax before the Pope on the Sedia Gestatoria, saying "Sic transit gloria mundi -- thus passes the glory of the world."

    Apart from the numbers of people involved, the Pontifical Mass is much like that of an ordinary bishop, but there are a few interesting differences:

    The Pope receives the Pallium from the first Cardinal-Deacon before incensing the altar, and then receives again the obedience of all the prelates. The "praises of the Pope" are sung, really a litany asking God's blessing upon him. The Epistle and Gospel are sung in Latin and then Greek to show the universality of the Church. At the Offertory the papal sacristan tastes the wine and water, and after the Pope has chosen one unconsecrated host from a plate of three, eats the remaining two -- a precaution wishfully no longer necessary. The Pope receives Communion, taking the Precious Blood through a fistula, or golden straw.

    The actual coronation follows, perhaps on the balcony of St. Peter's: The choir sings "Corona aurea super caput ejus -- A Golden Crown Upon His Head." ((based on Ecclesiasticus xlv). The Cardinal Dean recites the Lord's Prayer, (some accounts mention a collect at this point: Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, dignitas Sacerdotii.... ) and the Dean of the College of Cardinals places the tiara on the Pope's head, saying: "Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that thou art Father of Princes and Kings, Ruler of the World, Vicar of Our Savior Jesus Christ on earth, to him be the honor and glory forever and ever." Some accounts of papal coronations have the Pope granting an indulgence to the crowd, and giving his blessing.

1.  Glen D. Kitler, The Papal Princes, pp. 93, 93.
2.  The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. " Tiara" ;
 The Parish Bulletin,
"Q&A," October 1994 
3.  The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Pope Honorius I, ; s.v. "Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum" 
4.  Zsolt Aradi, The Popes, p. 99. See also p. 75.
5.  Ibid., C.E."Liber Diurnus..."; 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, 
6.   Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV, "Excursus on the Condemnation of Pope Honorius." 
7. Pontificale Romanum, Ordo consecrationis electi in episcopum, examen.
8.   The description of the coronation is from Zsolt Aradi, op. cit. unless otherwise noted. It is written in the present tense in the hope that future Popes will return, at least in part, to this glorious tradition of our Holy Faith.
9.   Francis B. Thornton, Cross Upon Cross: Life of Pope Pius IX (New York: Benzinger, 1955), p. 76; Catholic World, Volume 27, Issue 158, May 1878, "The Coronation of Pope Leo XIII," page 282 cited at  (anti-Catholic source, with beautiful papal graphics!).
10.  Ibid., Thornton, p.77.


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