How to pick the pope

Electing pontiffs is considered their most important job...

Published: March 6, 2013 4:18 pm

Who’s inside

Cardinals under 80 are eligible to vote. This time,two cardinals squeaked under the age limit,since their 80th birthday comes just after Benedict XVI’s Feb 28 resignation. Electing pontiffs is considered their most important job. So far,only two of the 117 qualified “princes” of the church have begged off – a seriously ill Indonesian cardinal and a Scottish cardinal who acknowledged sexually inappropriate conduct.


One by one,cardinals place their hand on a book of Gospels and swear to follow the conclave’s strict and detailed rules,including never to reveal what went on during the conclave. However,months after Benedict XVI was elected in 2005,excerpts of an anonymous cardinal’s diary were published.


While cardinals are sequestered in the Vatican City’s hotel,the modern Santa Marta residence,the Vatican wants to make sure the Holy Spirit is the only influence on the red-hatted prelates. That means no TV,radio,newspapers,cell phones or landlines. The rule-bending diarist mentioned above did note that one cardinal slipped out after dinner at the hotel for a smoke.


While the cardinals swear themselves to secrecy,there’s no such oath for non-Vatican types. Vatican security forces will therefore sweep the Sistine Chapel for any hidden microphones or other eavesdropping devices. Jamming equipment installed under a false floor should be able to detect any cell-phones or other electronic devices.


While no chatting is allowed during the conclave,cardinals can always seek inspiration from higher levels. Just above their heads is Michelangelo’s exquisitely frescoed ceiling. And on the wall behind the chapel’s altar is the artist’s “Last Judgment” – with its frightening depictions of the damned.


Even the words the cardinals will write on the ballots will be in Latin,with each of them prefacing his choice for pontiff with the words Eligo in summen pontificem or (I elect as supreme pontiff) and then the name. Ballots are folded and stuffed into an urn to await being counted.


After the ballots are counted,they are tied together with needle and thread. They are then placed in an iron stove,whose narrow chimney will channel the smoke up into the outside world,where the faithful will watch in St. Peter’s Square to see if the smoke is black – no pope yet – or white – a pope has been chosen. The bells of St Peter’s Basilica will be set ringing when a new pope has been chosen.


Conclaves have dragged on for weeks and months,sometimes years. Except for the first day,when only one round of balloting takes place,cardinals will vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon until a pope is chosen. The longest conclave of the last century went on for 14 rounds over five days. This century’s only conclave went 4 rounds over 2 days before the announ-cement rang out across St. Peter’s.

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