By now, almost everyone is aware of the basics of a papal conclave. And in an age of sound bites, political platforms and infomercials, it does seem like a very strange way to choose a leader.
But beyond seeing it as odd or outdated, some commentators evidently think that whole process is wrongheaded, if not simply wrong. That certainly seems to be the implication when the deliberations are characterized as being liable to “groupthink” or are criticized for their lack of transparency.
When thinking about the papal conclave, it often comes down to what you believe about “inspiration” and how to get it.
When Catholics talk about religious “inspiration,” they usually are thinking about the Holy Spirit. In Catholic doctrine, the Holy Spirit is the third part of the Trinity. The Catholic catechism refers to the Holy Spirit with the pronoun “he,” and Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “paraclete,” the “consoler” or “he who is called to one’s side.”
For Catholics, the Holy Spirit comes through baptism, and through the other sacraments. But he also comes in ways we do not expect. Knowledge and wisdom are among the seven gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to sanctify a person. There are also special or “charismatic” graces associated with Holy Spirit that are specific gifts related to a particular task or vocation for the common good.
All these gifts of the Holy Spirit figure into how the conclave is designed.
The Mass is more than a ceremony to inaugurate the proceedings. It is a sacrament that bestows grace on those who are properly disposed. The meditative chanting of “Come Holy Spirit” is not only a petition or plea, it is a way of quieting one’s mind and heart, so that the Holy Spirit can be felt and heard.
The phrase “extra omnes” has most often been coupled with discussions of the security at the conclave, which includes the positioning of electronic jamming devices. This isolation from the outside world is indeed intended to prevent external sources of influence — something hardly unknown in papal elections — but it is also allows the cardinals to listen to the voice or voices that really matter.
The conclave hotel, Casa Santa Marta, gives cardinals an opportunity to talk beyond the prayerful silence that attends voting in the Sistine Chapel. But the hope is that the elimination of outside distractions also enables them to be sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit, both in themselves and each other.
The material comforts of the conclave have been significantly upgraded in recent decades: Cardinals no longer have to share bathrooms or use a washbowl for bathing. But the rooms are still Spartan.
Part of the reason for such ascetic conditions was to make the selection process as uncomfortable as possible so that the cardinals would get the job done and get out of Rome as quickly as possible. But another part of the reason lies in the influence of Catholic monastic spirituality, which places a high value on seclusion and separation as necessary conditions for discerning the presence of the Holy Spirit.