Who elects a new pope? 117 cardinals, mostly European

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s page in Amazon.By THOMAS J. REESE, S.J.

THERE ARE CURRENTLY 118 cardinals under the age of 80, but Cardinal Lubomyr Husar turns 80 on February 26, two days before Pope Benedict’s resignation goes into effect. As a result, he will not be able to attend the conclave. If the pope were resigning two days earlier Husar would be able to attend the conclave.

Sixty-seven of the 117 cardinals in the conclave will have been appointed by Pope Benedict, the rest by John Paul II. Their average age is 72. Over half (52%) are from Europe, with 24% from Italy.  About a third of the cardinals are from the developing world, with Latin America getting almost half that (16%). Africa, Asia and the U.S. each get 11 electors. About 35% of the cardinals work in Rome. 

Popes tend to make only minor adjustments in the geographical distribution of cardinals, but since the total number of cardinals is small, a couple of cardinals here or there make a difference. John Paul increased the number of Eastern European cardinals and decreased the number of Italian cardinals. Benedict has increased the percentage of Italian cardinals and curial cardinals in the conclave and reduced the percentage of cardinals from the third world.

Cardinal Husar is not the only one to be caught by the 80-year rule. Cardinal Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, is supposed to preside over the conclave but he is too old to attend. He will be able to preside over the pre-conclave general congregations between the resignation and the conclave. Normally, the sub-dean would take his place at the conclave, but he (Cardinal Roger Marie Élie Etchegaray) is also over 80. This leaves it to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the most senior member of the college of cardinals to do the work of the dean at the conclave. Note he will not be the oldest in the conclave, that is Cardinal Walter Kasper. Seniority in the college of cardinals is based on rank (cardinal bishops outrank cardinal priests and cardinal deacons) and date of incorporation into the college of cardinals.

The cardinal dean asks whoever is elected pope, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” Since Cardinal Ratzinger was the dean, he was asked by the sub-dean.

It is too bad Cardinal Husar will not be able to attend because I always thought he would make a wonderful pope with a colorful personal history. The only problem with him becoming pope is that he is not a Latin Catholic but an Ukrainian Catholic. Since Rome is a Latin diocese, this might be a problem. By the way, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has married priests but not married bishops.

Cardinal Husar was born in Lviv, Ukraine but fled with his parents in 1944 and ended up in the U.S. in 1949, where he became an American citizen. He attended Fordham University and the Catholic University of America. After being ordained a priest for Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford in 1958, he was pastor of a church in Kerhonkson, NY, until 1969 when he went to Rome to get a doctorate in theology. In 1977, he was ordained a bishop without the approval of the pope by Archbishop Josyf Slipyi in Castel Gandolfo of all places! He kept a low profile for many years, but was so highly respected by the other Ukrainian bishops that they elected him as exarch of Kiev and Vyshhorod in 1995. His election was approved by the pope. He gave up his U.S. citizenship when he returned to Ukraine. In 2001, the Ukrainian Synod elected him Major Archbishop of Lviv and he was made a cardinal the same year.


This column is used by permission from Father Thomas Reese, the author of several essential books about the structure and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. His most important book, right now, is Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church,published by Harvard University Press. For decades, Father Reese has been one of the leading American experts on the Catholic church, quoted in newspaper, magazines and TV news stories. Father Reese also has organized an extensive index to Papal Transition stories, hosted by America magazine online.


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