Centuries ago, the selection of a new Pope would involve locking Cardinals into the Sistine Chapel, where they would eat and sleep until a new pontiff was chosen. In 2013, some creature comforts have been added to the arcane ceremony, but the inner workings of the Papal Conclave are still shrouded in mysterious ritualistic intrigue.
This Tuesday, March 12, a new conclave will commence to pick the 266th Bishop of Rome. The 115 members of the college of Cardinals will commiserate at the Vatican where they cast their votes for Pope, while eating and sleeping at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, which is basically a hotel located inside the Vatican. The voting members will still be locked inside the conclave while ballots are being cast. The beginning of the ceremony traditionally begins with the words, “Extra omnes” which means “Everyone Out.” Once the area has been cleared of everyone but the Cardinals, the voting can begin.
There is to be no pleading their case or politicking inside the conclave. This is supposed to have taken place previous to the vote during the days of “general congregations” at the Vatican. Votes are repeatedly cast until two-thirds plus-one vote are delivered in favor of a single candidate.
So, how exactly does the voting process work? Well, as one can imagine, it is steeped in ritual. Each Cardinal holds his one vote, written on a piece of paper with the words “Eligo in summen pontificem,” or “I elect as supreme pontiff” and then the name of their selection. One by one, the men will approach the altar and place their ballot into a plate designed specifically for the conclave. The plate is then tipped into a sort of urn.
The three Cardinals chosen to count the votes check every ballot carefully. Once they’ve agreed upon the numbers, they douse the ballots with chemicals and then burn them. One additive will cause black smoke to arise from the paper, while another chemical will cause the ballots to burn white. This smoke will arise from a chimney visible to the public. Black smoke = no Pope, White smoke = new Pope.
There is no time limit on the conclave. In some cases the voting process has dragged on for weeks. In fact, in 1269 the conclave lasted three years! This is highly unlikely in modern times, however. Generally the process takes a few days at most. Once a Pope has been selected, the Cardinal who won will say “Accepto” which means “I accept” and that will conclude the conclave and a new Pope will take the Papal throne.
Immediately following the new Pope’s acceptance, he is asked by what name he’d like to be known. The tradition of choosing a Papal name rather than the pontiff simply using his own has an interesting history, as it wasn’t always so. The first Pope to change his name officially was John II in 533. His birth name was Mercury, which had such overtly pagan connotations it was deemed inappropriate. This did not solidify papal name change as tradition however. Some Popes continued to carry their own names. In 983, a Pope was elected whose given name was Peter. Out of reverence for Peter the Apostle, who is considered by Catholics to be the first Pope, it was determined there could not be a Peter II, thus Peter the Pope became known as John XIV. Around 1009, the practice of choosing a new name became commonplace, primarily because of the increase in non-Italian papal candidates. It seems that the selection of new names has less to do with a ritual of reverence and more to do with making sure that Romans and Europeans could pronounce the Pope’s name. The last Pope to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in 1555.
There is currently much speculation as to who will be elected as the new Pope. The breakdown of cardinals at this conclave is weighing heavily in favor of European voters (60 of the 115 Cardinals are from Europe).
Whether or not you have a Papal dog in this hunt, you’ll probably be hard pressed to avoid coverage of the conclave this week. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be watching that smokestack, wondering who will next occupy the Holy See.
If you’re somehow able to avoid all of the media coverage, don’t worry. I’ll keep ya posted.