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.
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.