How Conclave Works: All the Rules and Rituals of the Papal Election
This historic conclave, the first in nearly 600 years during which the previous pope is still alive, will begin Tuesday, 12 March. If you read my last conclave post (and kudos to you if you did, considering the length of it), you are now familiar with the history of conclave and how it evolved over the years. Now you want to know exactly what goes on in that secret, boys-only ritual that decides the most influential man in the Catholic world, the successor of St. Peter, and the Vicar of Christ on Earth?
Well, read on, dear bloglings, read on.
For those of you who like superlatives, it should be noted that the Papal Conclave is the longest on-going process of choosing the leader of any institution. I think that is what makes it so exciting. The sense of continuity is one of the things I find so fascinating about Rome in general, and conclave is a part of that. Being present in the square for the Habemus Papam, regardless of your religion or views on the papacy, is a way to participate in that 954-year tradition and be a part of history.
As you already know, only cardinals can elect the pope, although not all of them. Any cardinal over 80 is barred from participating in conclave, and therefore much less likely to be elected. In all practicality it is unthinkable in our time that someone not participating in conclave would be elected. But in fact, the rules make any confirmed Catholic male eligible to be elected pope, but it hasn’t happened since 1378. It’s about as likely as a write-in candidate winning the presidency. Part of the reason for the age limit is so that the new pope will not be excessively old when he takes office.
This time around, there are 115 cardinal-electors participating. That number would have been 117, but 2 voting-age cardinals have requested not to participate: Cardinal Julius Riyadi Darmaamadja of Jakarta, Indonesia, for health reasons, and—much more scandalous—Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh Scotland, who resigned his position a few weeks ago after accusations (which he later confirmed) arose regarding his inappropriate sexual behavior toward a number of other priests.
Ordinarily, after the death of a pope, a mourning period of 15 days is observed before conclave can begin. Pope Emeritus (aka the Artist Formerly Known as Pope Benedict XVI) made a last-minute change in conclave rules before officially stepping down on 28 February, eliminating that waiting period in his case, since clearly there was no death to mourn.
With the expectation that conclave would begin sometime this coming week, two very important things have been going on in Vatican City this past week. Firstly, as the cardinals arrive from all corners of the globe, they have been participating in General Congregation meetings. These amount to an abbreviated campaign period in which the cardinals can speak about the issues that need to be considered in regard to the choosing of the new pope, and as pertain to the future of the Church. I have been following my friend and AP journalist Patricia Thomas’ posts on her blog Mozzarella Mamma for all the details regarding these meetings. Papal Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi holds daily press conferences for accredited journalists in which important news is imparted, although the cardinals are held to a vow of secrecy for the General Congregation meetings just as for conclave itself. I learned from Trisha that perhaps the most important part of the meetings are the lengthy coffee breaks during which the cardinals have a change to get to know each other better and discuss their ideas face to face. Both cardinal-electors and –non-electors are welcome to participate in these meetings. It was during the 8th General Congregation Friday that the starting date of conclave was voted on.
The other important process taking place all week is, of course, the preparation of the Sistine Chapel. The chapel closed to the public on Tuesday 5 March at 1:15pm. You might be wondering how it could possibly take a week to prepare for an election room. Just set up some tables and call it done! Well, there are—as you might have imagined—many regulations to follow. Nothing about conclave is arbitrary. An Apostolic Constitution regulates every detail of the ritual.
Firstly, a platform of wood, supported by metal tubes, is erected and covered with beige carpeting. This serves several purposes. First, it protects the ornate marble floor from damage by the stove. (There is in fact a small orange stain on one of the pale floor tiles that was stained in a previous conclave.) It also creates a level surface, as there are a few steps and ramps in the chapel that would make setting up long tables impossible. Lastly, the raised surface symbolizes the idea that the cardinals must not be tied down with Earthly concerns during the election.
Another necessity during conclave is the stove that burns the ballots. In fact, there are two stoves. One burns the ballots after every two voting sessions, and the other is fed with chemicals that produce the tell-tale smoke that will signal to the city of Rome and the world whether that balloting has produced a pope. The emission of black smoke tells us there is no new pope, and white smoke means there is. The smoke of both stoves travels up a copper pipe that exits the chapel through the window in the southeast corner of the chapel. The chimney stack was set up yesterday and the chapel has been swept for bugs and recording devices, although it has not been reported that any were found.
With the combination of the media coverage and the popularity of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, everyone knows by now that the word conclave comes from the Latin, con clave (with key), called such because since the 13th century, the cardinal-electors have been ceremoniously locked up during the election, to prevent endless indecision and outside interference, and to secure secrecy. To this day the chapel is literally locked and sealed while the cardinals are inside.
As you may know if you’ve ever visited the Sistine Chapel, it has five doorways. One, is a tourist entrance from the Vatican Museums, two are tourist exits, one leading back into the museums, and one to St. Peter’s. These three doors have already been locked and sealed for the entirely of conclave. (According to Mozzarella Mamma, they were sealed with Scotch tape!) A fourth door leads to the Sala del Pianto, or the Room of Tears (we’ll get back to that later). And the ceremonial and most important entrance is the set of double doors that leads to the Sala Regia, or Royal Hall, guarded by Swiss Guards (on the other side) at all times, which will be sealed during voting only.
But a question that often comes up is, where to the Cardinals eat and sleep? From what I can discover, there was never a time in which all the cardinal-electors were confined to the Sistine Chapel only for the entire conclave. However, all the way up to the 21st century, they were housed in the Apostolic Palace, both inside the Sistine Chapel and in the Sala Regia. They did not have private rooms, but instead in little temporary cubicles that were furnished with nothing more than a cot and a washbasin, with only one bathroom for every ten electors (or, in earlier times, each cardinal had his own chamber pot). Food was brought in through a small door near the Pauline Chapel, as can be seen on this floor plan showing each cardinal’s allotted space during the conclave of 1550.
In Crystal King’s blog post, The Renaissance Papal Conclave: What did they eat?, she reports that pies, whole chickens and the like were banned by 1550 because it was too easy to hide secret messages (probably bribes) inside. For fans of The Borgias, you’ll remember this is exactly what was depicted as happening in the 1492 election. Also, to preserve secrecy, the windows would be closed and shuttered at all times.
Quoted in the book Conclave, by John L. Allen, Jr., Cardinal Siri (who was nearly elected instead of John Paul II) recalls of the conclave of August 1978,
We were dying of heat, asphyxiation seemed to be getting the upper hand and I noticed that some cardinals were on the verge of collapse. Then I rebelled, … I said, ‘I order you to open the windows.’ Some responded, ‘Eminence, it is not permitted to open the windows.'
Eventually the cardinal got his way and the windows were opened, but it was the last time the electors were forced to sleep in semi-private cells in the Apostolic palace. The Casa Santa Marta is a residence inside the Vatican built specifically to house the cardinals during conclave. It was used for the first time during the conclave of 2005. The rooms are simply furnished and host two cardinals each. Much like in first-year college dorms, the cardinals do not get to pick their roommates.
So now we’ve covered what happens leading up to conclave. But what about during? In this case, following a Mass for the Election of a New Pontiff in St. Peter’s Basilica Tuesday morning, the cardinal-electors will be transferred to the Apostolic Palace where they will gather for prayer in the Pauline Chapel at 3:35pm. At 4:30 they will enter the Sistine Chapel singing Veni Creator Spiritus, a 9th-century hymn that invokes the Holy Spirit. It is believed that the Holy Spirit chooses the new pope through the cardinals.
The cardinal-electors will be administered an oath in which they make vows of secrecy as well as not to communicate with the outside world. (A new, very 21st-century rule has been added that bans the cardinals from communicating by Twitter or any other digital means.) At this point, Piero Marini, the Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations calls, “Extra omnes!” (everybody else, out!) and anyone not participating in conclave will be kicked out and Marini will close the doors. The cardinals will then be led in a brief meditation by 88-year old Cardinal Prosper Grech, a non-elector chosen during General Congregation, after which both he and Marini will exit to the Sala Regia, the doors will be locked and sealed, and the good stuff will begin. The first balloting will take place around 5pm.
The process of voting is also steeped in ritual. One the first day of voting, only one ballot, or scrutiny, takes place. The cardinals take their seats at long tables along the sides of the chapel and hand write the candidate of their choice on a small card on which are written the words, “Eligo in summum pontificem…” (I elect as supreme Pontiff…). These cards are anonymous and the electors are asked to disguise their handwriting. This was not always the case; until 1945, the cardinal's name would also be on the ballot, folded over so that it would be hidden until the time that the election was concluded. In this way, it would be known, at least for the final scrutiny, who voted for whom. This was necessary because of old rules that prohibited a cardinal casting the deciding vote for himself (in certain cases).
One by one, the cardinals approach the bench where the Camerlengo (Papal Chamberlain), in this case Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Pietro Bertone), and his three assistants, (chosen by lot and called Scrutineers) sit. The cardinal-elector will hold his folded vote card above his head and place it in the Goblet of Fire ceremonial urn, reciting an oath in Latin, vowing that he is voting for the person he thinks should be elected. This is to prevent the electors from casting “courtesy votes” that can prolong elections .
Once all the cardinals have voted, the first Scrutineer mixes up the votes, which are then taken out and counted. If the number of votes does not correspond to the number of electors, they are burned without being opened. If the number is correct, they are opened one by one, passed amongst the three Scrutineers and recorded by each of them in three separate ledgers. As the votes are recorded, they are pierced with a needle and thread over the word “Eligo,” and tied together so that none go missing.
A 2/3 majority is needed to elect a pope, although that rarely happens in the first scrutiny. On Wednesday, the scrutiny process will be repeated twice in the morning, sometime between 9:30 and noon, and twice in the afternoon, between 4:30 and 7pm. That is, unless a decision is reached before then. With the exception of the first scrutiny on Tuesday afternoon, ballots are burned after every two scrutinies, unless the pope is elected in the first of the two. This will make it difficult for those of us who want to try to catch sight of some smoke.
During the election of former Pope Benedict XVI, I witnessed only one emission of smoke, on the first day, which was, of course, black. I was very disappointed to miss the white smoke, and especially his first appearance. This year, I will do everything I can to be there, for the Habemus Papam at least, if not the smoke, even if that means leaving work and hopping in a taxi the moment I hear word. I have been assured that from the time the smoke emerges from the chimney to the time the new pope appears, about 30-45 minutes will pass. Fingers crossed! I only pray he that the new pope, whoever he may be, will not be elected on Thursday evening, as I have tickets to the opera!
If a pope has not been elected by the end of Thursday, Friday the cardinal-electors will take a day off to pray, and voting will resume Saturday. In a new rule Benedict XVI issued in 2007, after 33 scrutinies, or 10 days of balloting, another day of prayer is taken, and a run-off vote between the top 2 candidates takes place. It’s unlikely that this will happen, if the trend of very short conclaves of the past half-century continues. All but one conclave since 1939 has taken 2 days or fewer.
So the Scrutinies are finished and a pope has been chosen! It’s time for the big moment! As soon as one of the cardinals receives the minimum 2/3 majority, the cardinals will burst into applause. The Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations Marini and the Dean of the College of Cardinals, 85-year-old Angelo Sodano, will be invited back into the chapel, at which time Sodano will approach the newly elected pope and ask, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme Pontiff?” You’d probably think, what cardinal would turn down such a position? (Even though the resignation of Benedict XVI has proven that it's not every cardinal's dream to become pope). Cardinal (and later Saint) Carlo Borromeo turned the papacy down in the 16th century. But if the answer is yes, as soon as the elected cardinal says “Accepto,” he is officially the pope. He will then choose his papal name, often to show his respect and admiration for a previous pope, and each cardinal will take turns kneeling before him to show their homage and obedience. The white smoke is sent up and Rome knows she has a new pope.
The new pope will then retire into the small Sala del Pianto through a door to the left of the high altar, which I had the opportunity to visit briefly in 2009.
There three sets of papal vestments will be laid out, in sizes small, medium, and large. An anecdote has it that upon the election of Pope Jon XXIII, even the largest size was too small and a tailor had to be summoned to adjust it to fit the portly new pontiff. The “Room of Tears” is so called because the newly-elected pope is often overcome with emotion once he is alone, breaking down to cry.
After he is dressed, the new pope will walk back through the Sistine Chapel, through the Sala Regia and out onto the Benediction Loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica.
He will be proceeded by the senior Cardinal-Deacon, Jean-Louis Tauran of France, who will proclaim those famous words, Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum (I announce to you a great joy): Habemus Papam! (We have a pope!) Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum (The most eminent and most reverend Lord), Dominum … Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem … (Lord [First Name] Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church [Last Name]), Qui sibi nomen imposuit … Who takes for himself the name of [Papal Name].
Then to the roars of the crowd, the man himself will appear and give his first Urbi et Orbi (To the city [of Rome] and to the world) Apostolic Benediction. Hereafter, he will only give this important (read: indulgence-granting) blessing on Easter and Christmas. Despite living in Rome for over eight years, through many Easters and Christmases and one papal election (so far), I have never been present for this speech. Here’s hoping I make it this time!
All of this will be happening in the coming week, so it’s a very exciting time to be in Rome. I will be posting a few more times leading up to the election Tuesday afternoon, with a list of the papabili (pope-ables) and a few ominous papal predictions that might give some insight into who the mystery man might be. So be sure to stop by often, or follow me on Twitter (@ThePinesOfRome) where I will be on #SmokeWatch from Tuesday evening until the big announcement!