Before the cardinals entered the conclave to select the next pope, they first celebrated a special Mass. Then they chanted the “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” (Come Holy Spirit) as they paraded into the Sistine Chapel.  The master of ceremonies then declared “extra omnes” (everyone out).

Once the doors were sealed, the voting process began.

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But beyond seeing it as odd or outdated, some commentators evidently think that whole process is wrongheaded, if not simply wrong.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.  

 When casting his ballot, each cardinal swears “my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

Fear of God is also one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

On one level, it certainly makes conventional sense to see the pope as a religious equivalent of the president or a chief executive. And if that’s the case, it also makes sense to talk about issues like transparency or accountability. After all, the world’s one billion Catholics should understand how and why their leader was chosen, even if they can’t take part in the decision making process.

But positions such as president or CEO are relatively recent inventions.  And the pope is still a monarch, after all.  But a pope is also called to use his discernment in different contexts and in different ways.  Not only is he to safeguard “the deposit of faith,” he is also to be aware of the workings of the Holy Spirit in and through the church as well as in and through the world as a whole—something that can’t be easily grasped by polling and focus groups.  While the public perception of the pope focuses on his “external” qualities, much of what he does relies upon an internal openness to the Holy Spirit.

 The conclave — in its seclusion, in its focus on the interior as opposed to the external — is designed to select the candidate who has that special openness to the Holy Spirit.

Does this always work in the way intended?  Obviously, not: Papal history shows us that.  And I think all of us have more than occasionally felt “inspired” only to find out later that we had made a terrible mistake. 

But I do think all of have had other experiences in which we have felt “called” in ways that we can’t fully comprehend but which have decisively changed the course of our lives.  Sometimes, a papal conclave produces a result that surprises, that stuns, that gives us a sense that something else might be at work besides “groupthink” or simple fatigue.

Men like Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla were on no one’s list of papal contenders when their conclaves began.  Now both have been made “blessed.”  A sign, for Catholics at any rate, that the Holy Spirit works in ways that we often cannot predict or contain.

Mathew Schmalz teaches and writes on global Catholicism at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.