Papal conclave has tight structure, uncertain length

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the word “pontificem” in the Latin phrase on the ballots used by Roman Catholic cardinals. The phrase is “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” (“I elect as supreme pontiff”). This version has been corrected.

The papal conclave will begin in Vatican City on Tuesday, when 115 cardinals, having celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s, will walk to the Sistine Chapel, lock themselves inside, take an oath of secrecy, pray, and then attempt to select the new spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

For the past week, the cardinals have been meeting in “general congregations” to hash out the key issues facing Catholicism. There has been much speculation that the next pope could come from the developing world rather than Europe, though most veteran Vatican watchers say another Western pope will likely emerge from the conclave. There is no obvious favorite to ascend to the papacy, left vacant by Benedict XVI, who resigned last month citing age and frailty.

The cardinals could pick a pope on the very first ballot on the first afternoon of the conclave, though that would be surprising; in recent conclaves, popes have been selected after at least two days of balloting.

The Vatican on Monday issued a few details about the way the Vatican technicians create the black smoke (no pope yet) or white smoke (pope elected) that rises from the chapel’s chimney to signal the results of the latest balloting. A modern chemical compound, prepared by the technicians, is burned in a stove to create the black smoke, the Vatican said. A separate stove is used to burn the ballots.

“Traditionally wet straw was used to help create the black smoke, but a number of ‘false alarms’ in past conclaves have brought about this concession to modern chemistry,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a spokesman for the Vatican.

The College of Cardinals held a general meeting Monday morning, but did not set a start date for the conclave that will decide who succeeds Pope Benedict XVI. It will ultimately come down to the 115 Cardinal electors who choose the new pope, so we’re taking a look at the numbers behind the voting in Vatican City. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

He noted, “For a Church that has made much progress in the area of modern communications, computer technology, Internet and Twitter, the conclave still relies on smoke signals to let the world know of its results.”

The conclave is a process that dates to the Middle Ages. Until the 11th century, the process of picking popes was “a mess and inconsistent,” said Georgetown University history professor the Rev. David Collins. The popes were picked by various combinations of the clergy in Rome and the general population. At that time, popes served as the head of Christianity in Western Europe and as the bishop of Rome. The city was governed by several prominent families, and the pope would come from one of those families.

“There was this inextricable connection between family politics and church,” said Collins.

The word “conclave” means “with key,” and dates to the 13th century, when indecisive cardinals spent two years trying to select a pope. The locals became so impatient thatthey tore the roof off the building where the men were meeting, and then locked them in, limiting them to one meal a day until they made up their minds, Collins said.

The procedure is strictly structured. Before the cardinals go into the Sistine Chapel, they celebrate Mass at St. Peters. Then they walk into the chapel, singing “Veni Creator Spiritus,” or “Come Holy Spirit.” Once they enter, they swear an oath of secrecy and vow to obey the next pope. Then an attendant yells out “extra omnes!” or “everyone out!,” and the various attendants leave the room.

Before the conclave starts Tuesday, a cardinal, Cardinal Prospero Grech, of Malta, will give a spiritual reflection. That will be the only speech, unless no pope has been picked after a few days. At that point, the cardinals can pause the conclave for up to one day, and withdraw to their rooms for prayer or informal discussion. There is typically another spiritual reflection speech during that break.

The first round of voting will be Tuesday afternoon (Tuesday morning Washington time).

The cardinals are expected to pray and largely remain quiet until a vote is called, said the Rev. James Martin, editor at large of the Catholic magazine America. Then they vote one at a time, writing by hand a name next to the words “Eligo In Summum Pontificem” — “I elect a supreme pontiff.” Martin said cardinals will often write in what he called “disguised” handwriting, to ensure anonymity after the ballot is turned in. The cardinals fold the ballot twice, kneel and say: “I call as my witness, Christ the Lord who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

“They’re basically saying: I am aware of who is judging this,” Martin said.

A staffer called a “scrutineer” shakes the urn, and another staffer counts the ballots to make sure they add up to the number of electors, which in this conclave is 115. There are three “revisers” who triple-count the ballots. The cardinals are told which men received what number of votes. The ballots are then tied together with thread and burned in a stove.

Election requires a two-thirds supermajority.

The person selected as pope will be asked by Giovanni Battista Re, the highest-ranking cardinal dean present, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” The elected person must explicitly consent to serve.

The process is rich with mysticism and faith, but “papal conclaves are very human things,” Collins said. “And they are very political in a sense of a small ‘p’. Anyone who suggest otherwise is naïvely pious.”

Jason Horowitz in Vatican City contributed to this report.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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