The secret meetings before the conclave

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Cardinals get briefed, take an oath of secrecy, deal with finances, among others

UNDER SECRECY. Cardinals vow not to leak the discussions in their General Congregations. Photo from's Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – Until cardinals hole up in the Sistine Chapel to elect the new pope, a decree requires them to meet daily – bound by secrecy – to discuss conclave preparations as well as other pressing issues.

Signed by the late Pope John Paul II, the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis requires all cardinal electors to convene in General Congregations daily. Cardinals ineligible to join the conclave, may choose not to attend this.

The Vatican said 142 cardinals – including Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, a papal contender – attended the first General Congregation on Monday, March 4. Of this number, 103 belong to the group of 117 cardinal electors. 

What do they do during General Congregations? Rappler lists down 7 of the cardinals’ major duties based on Universi Dominici Gregis. (Watch related video below.)

1. Get briefed, and take an oath of secrecy

Cardinals get a briefing – which covers the procedures set by Universi Dominici Gregis and even the use of gadgets during their meetings. Then they take the following oath of secrecy:

“We, the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, of the Order of Bishops, of Priests and of Deacons, promise, pledge, and swear, as a body and individually, to observe exactly and faithfully all the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, and to maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff or those which, by their very nature, during the vacancy of the Apostolic See, call for the same secrecy.

“And I, N. Cardinal N., so promise, pledge and swear… So help me God and these Holy Gospels which I now touch with my hand.”

2. Make sure authorities prepare the Sistine Chapel, the venue for the conclave, and the cardinals’ lodging at Domus Sanctae Marthae

John Paul decreed the cardinals’ rooms will be assigned by lot.

3. Listen to reflections on problems facing the Catholic Church

Cardinals should entrust this role to “two ecclesiastics known for their sound doctrine, wisdom, and moral authority,” according to John Paul’s decree. The clergymen shall present “two well-prepared meditations in choosing the new pope.”

Other cardinals also voice their thoughts during General Congregations.

The Vatican said on Monday, in fact, that 13 cardinals also “took the floor to address issues mainly related to the process of the proceedings and the questions to be faced, also bearing in mind the results of the latest Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.”

In his book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election, veteran Vatican journalist John Allen Jr enumerated some issues raised in past General Congregations.

He said that in 1978, for example, discussions revolved around church finances amid scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank.

In the same year, according to Allen, cardinals talked about whether to have the late John Paul I autopsied, “since there were rumors of foul play.”

“In the end, the cardinals consulted medical experts, who were unanimous that the death was ordinary. They decided against an autopsy, fearing that even the most mundane results would be manipulated to keep the story going,” Allen wrote.

COLLEGE OF CARDINALS. 142 of 207 cardinals attend the first General Congregation on March 4. Photo from's Facebook page

This year, a cardinal suggests a discussion on the Vatileaks scandal that rocked Benedict XVI’s papacy.

“If we’re going to make a good decision, I’m sure we’ll have to have some information on that,” said South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier in an interview with reporters on the sidelines of the closed-door meetings.

Napier added that the possible reform of the Roman Curia, which is the Catholic Church’s central government, “naturally is going to come into the picture as well.”

French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin added: “We want to know what’s going on inside the Vatican, which has been a bit knocked about in recent years.”

4. Deal with finances

Cardinals shall “approve – at the proposal of the Administration of the Apostolic See or, within its competence, of the Governorato of Vatican City State – expenses incurred from the death of the Pope until the election of his successor.”

5. Read, destroy what the previous pope left

They shall read documents left by the preceding pope for the College of Cardinals. They shall also arrange for the destruction of symbols related to the last pope: his Fisherman’s Ring and the lead seal with which he dispatched Apostolic Letters.

6. Schedule the conclave

Benedict, before quitting the papacy, allowed cardinals to hold the conclave earlier than expected. Universi Dominici Gregis said a conclave should begin at least 15 days after the papacy is vacated, but Benedict approved an earlier conclave “once all cardinals are present.”

7. Stop for a while – and talk more

Cardinals take a break, of course. On Monday, for instance, the Vatican said they took 45 minutes off “for coffee and to exchange thoughts.”

SPIRITUAL ACTIVITY. Cardinals pray for the Holy Spirit's guidance in electing a new pontiff. Photo from's Facebook page

Outside the regimented structure of the General Congregations, the Princes of the Catholic Church also talk. This, too, is perhaps off-the-record, but not less important in choosing the pope. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email