Once the cardinals do set a date, the conclave to choose Benedict’s successor will be the 75th since 1295, a few decades before the church chose its last pope outside of the College of Cardinals.
The conclave was a necessary innovation. After years without a pope, frustrated Catholics threw the indecisive electors in a building, removed its roof and fed them only bread and water.
Now the conclave takes place under Michelangelo’s frescoes. The cardinals stay in Domus Sanctae Marthae, a five-story (if not five-star) Vatican residence built in 1996 with 105 two-room suites and 26 single rooms. The big news last time was that the rooms, which are assigned by lot to the cardinals, had been furnished with showers.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, there will be 115 electors of an average age of 72. More than half are European, and nearly half of those are from Italy. About 34 percent come from Asia, Africa and Latin America, with the United States contributing about 9.4 percent and Canada a little less than 3 percent. About 45 percent work or have worked in the Roman Curia.
Two cardinals under the voting-age limit of 80 are staying home, one in Indonesia with eye problems, another in Britain to face accusations of inappropriately touching other priests.
In addition to the cardinals, there are doctors, nurses, priests and liturgical assistants on call and sworn to secrecy. On Monday, Benedict, whose last year in office was overcast by a leak scandal, stipulated that if they share any information about the conclave, they will automatically be excommunicated. (The cardinals are immune, so the Italian press will probably get a vote tally.)
Black smoke, white smoke
When the conclave finally begins, the voting cardinals proceed in scarlet vestments from the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel, where they take an oath of secrecy and vow to resist influence from outside meddlers, whether secular states or, as the Vatican suggested this month, the media. Once the cardinals are sworn in, everyone else is kicked out with a cry of “Extra omnes.”
With the doors closed, an agreed-upon prelate offers a prayer encouraging them to think piously of the good of the universal church. He then exits with the master of papal liturgical ceremony, leaving the cardinals alone with ballots reading “Eligo in summum pontificem” (“I elect as supreme pontiff”) across the top of each card.
The votes are tallied, and the ballots are stored in urns. Inconclusive ballots are mixed with a chemical and burned to make black smoke, which prompts groans from the papal-burn watchers in St. Peter’s Square.
When the next pope is elected, Giovanni Battista Re, the highest-ranking cardinal dean under 80, will ask him, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” If he says yes, he’s expected to change his name, a practice dating back to 533, when a prelate bearing the pagan name Mercury opted for John.
The conclusive ballots are then treated with a formula that produces white smoke, the crowd outside roars, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the church’s most senior cardinal in the order of deacons, heads to the balcony to announce “Habemus papam” — “We have a pope.”