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Pope’s Passing Highlights Age-Old Customs

April 8, 2005

THE death of Pope John Paul II – anevent that brought the tradition-steeped,mysterious world of the Vatican to thefrenetic newstickers of CNN – exposedceremonies and beliefs almost as novelto the world’s Catholics, many of whomhave never witnessed a transition fromone pope to the next, as to non-Catholics.A few:In the past, the papal household’schamberlain, or camerlengo – nowCardinal Eduardo Martínez of Spain –took two actions to verify the death: hestruck the forehead of the pope threetimes with a silver hammer and calledout the pope’s baptismal name (in thiscase, Karol) three times as well. Thispractice of using the hammer, apparentlybased on medieval methods ofascertaining death, similar to the reflexhammers doctors use today, has beendiscarded. If the pope does notrespond to his name, the camerlengoformally announces he is dead.The camerlengo uses the silverhammer to smash the papal seal and thepope’s Fisherman’s Ring to preventforgery.Measures used to notify the publicof the pope’s death include closing theBronze Door (which, in this case, wasalready closed as usual at 8 p.m. beforethe pope’s death at 9:37 p.m. Vaticantime) and the shutters of the pope’sapartment. The first notification of JohnPaul II’s death came in a Vatican e-mailto journalists.All cardinals younger than 80 willmeet in the Sistine Chapel to elect thenew pope. If no cardinal receives thetwo-thirds plus one vote required to winthe papacy, a chemical is mixed with thediscarded ballots to produce blacksmoke when they are burned. The ballotsfrom a successful vote are burnedalone, producing white smoke to tell theworld the pope has been elected.John Paul II reportedly died withoutrevealing the identity of the last cardinalhe chose during his papacy. He named21 prelates as cardinals in 2003, identifyingall but one and saying he kept thelast name “in pectore,” in his heart, ameasure popes occasionally use for reasonsof convenience or to protect cardinalsfrom religious persecution in theirhomelands. However, for the secret cardinalto participate in the election of thenext pope, John Paul II would have toreveal his name before his death.

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