An expert guide to the Mass to elect a pope

A screen shot of the Mass in St Peter's Basilica (from footage broadcast by Salt and Light TV)

After the death and burial of a Pope or, in the case we have now, after his resignation, the whole Church focuses on the election of a Successor of St Peter, Bishop of Rome, Supreme Pontiff. Pontiff, a word which is used for a bishop, comes from the Latin pontifex, from pons-facio, for “bridge-builder”, used in ancient Rome to describe priests. The exact reason for the image is lost in the depths of time, but priests, by offering sacrifice, bridge the gap between men and the divine. On the morning the conclave is to begin, a great concourse of people and all the cardinals over 80 in Rome, gather with the cardinal electors and celebrate a special Pro eligendo Summo Pontifice, a Mass “for electing the Supreme Pontiff”. Here from the Ordo Rituum Conclavis (Ordo of the Rites of the Conclave released in 2000) is that Mass’s …


Deus, qui, pastor aeternus, gregem tuum assidua custodia gubernas, eum immensa tua pietate concede Ecclesiae pastorem, qui tibi morum sanctitate placeat, et vigili nobis sollicitudine prosit.

NB: This collect is not to be confused with that which was in the 1962 Missale Romanum. After the Council everything was a target for tinkering. In the second part of the Collect, above, the subjunctive sounds in English like a future indicative. Pietas, applied to God, is “mercy”. Guberno, whence “govern”, actually means “to pilot, steer a ship”. That word invokes the image of our Church as a ship, sailing on the rough open seas towards the homeland, the safe port of the heavenly patria.


God, who, as eternal Shepherd, govern Your flock with ceaseless protecting care, from Your immense mercy grant to the Church the shepherd who will be pleasing to You in holiness of character, and beneficial for us in watchful concern.


Tuae nobis, Domine, abundantia pietatis indulgeat, ut, per sacra munera quae tibi reverenter offerimus, gratum maiestati tuae pastorem Ecclesiae sanctae praeesse gaudeamus.

The verb indulgeo means “to be courteous or complaisant; to be kind; to be pleased with or inclined to; to concede, grant, allow”. This is where we get the concept of “being indulgent” with someone. We also get from this the word for an “indulgence” from this verb.


May the abundance of Your mercy towards us allow, O Lord, that, through the sacred gifts which we are reverently offering to You, we may rejoice that a shepherd pleasing to Your majesty is set over Holy Church.

Notice the “high” tone to the language. There is a clear recognition of our need in our lowliness and the lofty yet merciful majesty of God. Now for the…


Refectos, Domine, Corporis et Sanguinis Unigeniti tui saluberrimo sacramento, nos mirifica tuae maiestatis gratia, de illius pastoris dono laetificet, qui et plebem tuam virtutibus instruat, et fidelium mentes evangelica veritate perfundat.

The most interesting word of the prayer is the verb instruo, which signifies first of all “to build in or into; to build, erect, construct”. It also means, “to set in order, draw up in battle array” as well as “to provide with information, to teach, instruct”.


O Lord, let the wondrous grace of Your majesty make us, restored by the most beneficial Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Your Only-begotten, rejoice in the gift of that shepherd who will both set Your people in order with respect to virtues and also imbue the minds of the faithful with Gospel Truth.

When the Cardinals solemnly process into the conclave the Litany of Saints is sung. They go to their places in the Sistine Chapel and, after singing the sequence to the Holy Spirit Veni Creator Spiritus, the Cardinal Dean says this mighty prayer (ORC 38):

Ecclesiae tuae, Domine, rector et custos, infunde, quaesumus, famulis tuis spiritum intelligentiae, veritatis et pacis, ut, quae tibi placita sunt, toto corde cognoscant et agnita tota virtute sectentur.

There is an interesting distinction between cognosco and agnosco (which gives us agnita, the neuter plural object of sectentur). Agnosco is, “as if to know a person or thing well, as having known it before, to recognise”: agnoscere always denotes a subjective knowledge or recognition; while cognoscere designates an objective perception.


O Lord, ruler and protector of Your Church, pour forth upon Your servants, we beseech You, a spirit of discernment, of truth and of peace, so that they may acknowledge with all their heart the things that are pleasing to You and cleave to those things that have been perceived with all their strength.

Just to round this out, let’s see the Collect in the 1962 Missale Romanum for the votive Mass Pro eligendo

Supplici, Domine, humilitate deposcimus: ut sacrosanctae Romanae Ecclesiae concedat Pontificem illum tua immense pietas; qui et pio in nos studio semper tibi placitus, et tuo populo pro salubri regimine sit assidue ad gloriam tui nominis reverendus.


As supplicants, O Lord, we earnestly entreat, that Your immense mercy grant to the Most Holy Roman Church a Pontiff, who will be both always pleasing to You in devotion and zeal for us, and will be constantly revered by Your people on account of his salutary government.


O Lord, with suppliant humility, we entreat Thee, that in Thy boundless mercy Thou wouldst grant the most Holy Roman Church a Pontiff, who by his zeal for us may be pleasing to Thee, and by his good government may be ever honoured by Thy people for the glory of Thy name.

We entreat Thee most humbly, O Lord, that Thy boundless mercy may give the Holy Roman Church a Pontiff whose loving care in our regard will always be pleasing to Thee, and by his beneficent rule will always give glory to Thy name and be deeply honoured by Thy people.

What stands out in all the prayers is the deep awareness that Catholics have that the Petrine ministry, Peter’s presence at the head of the College of Bishops, successors of the Apostles, is a necessary part of the Church’s structure and identity. The Successor of Peter has the role of teaching, governing and sanctifying in a preeminent way, because Christ Himself instituted this office as part of the fabric of the Church He established on the Rock who is Peter. We cannot do without Peter for a long period of time. His role is to “strengthen the brethren” (Luke 22:32) and to feed Christ’s lambs (John 21:15). Without Peter, we are all weakened. Without the Vicar of Christ we feel as if there is no pilot at the helm of this little ship of ours, tossed on the waves, taking on water.