Papal conclave has tight structure, uncertain length

The papal conclave will begin in Vatican City on Tuesday, when 115 cardinals, having celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s, will walk to the Sistine Chapel, lock themselves inside, take an oath of secrecy, pray, and then attempt to select the new spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

For the past week, the cardinals have been meeting in “general congregations” to hash out the key issues facing Catholicism. There has been much speculation that the next pope could come from the developing world rather than Europe, though most veteran Vatican watchers say another Western pope will likely emerge from the conclave. There is no obvious favorite to ascend to the papacy, left vacant by Benedict XVI, who resigned last month citing age and frailty.

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 generation 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 that they 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.

Before the conclave starts Tuesday, a cardinal, Cardinal Prospero Grech, of Malta, will give a spiritual reflection. That will be the only speech, unless no pope has been picked after a few days. At that point, the cardinals can pause the conclave for up to one day, and withdraw to their rooms for prayer or informal discussion. There is typically another spiritual reflection speech during that break.

The first round of voting will be Tuesday afternoon (Tuesday morning EST).

The cardinals are expected to pray and largely remain quiet until a vote is called, said the Rev. James Martin, editor at large of the Catholic magazine America. Then they vote one at a time, writing by hand a name next to the words “Eligo In Summum Pontificum” – “I elect a supreme pontiff.” Martin said cardinals will often write in what he called “disguised” handwriting, to ensure anonymity after the ballot it turned in. The cardinals fold the ballot twice, kneel and say: “I call as my witness, Christ the Lord who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

“They’re basically saying: I am aware of who is judging this,” Martin said.

A staffer called a “scrutineer” shakes the urn, and another staffer counts the ballots to make sure they add up to the number of electors, which in this conclave is 115. There are three “revisers” who triple-count the ballots. The cardinals are told which men received what number of votes. The ballots are then tied together with thread and burned in a stove.

Election requires a two-thirds supermajority.

The person selected as pope will be asked by Giovanni Battista Re, the highest-ranking cardinal dean present, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” The elected person must explicitly consent to serve.

The process is rich with mysticism and faith, but “papal conclaves are very human things,” Collins said. “And they are very political in a sense of a small ‘p’. Anyone who suggest otherwise is naïvely pious.”

More in Local News

Snohomish man, 63, missing from home since Monday

He left without his keys, wallet and phone, saying something about going to “the river.”

Firefighters come to the rescue and give mom new stroller

Donations to the Good Neighbor Program covered the $143.20 cost.

Woman struck, injured while crossing Highway 99 in Edmonds

The driver stopped after hitting the woman, who was dressed in dark clothes, at about 7:10 a.m.

One dead in crash south of Granite Falls

Two cars collided near the intersection of N. Lake Roesiger Road and Hidden Valley Road.

He drank nearly a gallon of vodka, then grabbed a cop’s gun

He got pummeled for that. Police had been trying to keep him on a gurney for an ambulance ride.

Police seek witnesses to hit-and-run

An 88-year-old woman was hurt when a Prius turned right at an intersection and struck her walker.

Lake Stevens man killed in crash near Highway 92 identified

Kristofor Nordgren, of Lake Stevens, was driving his Subaru when it hit a truck and a Ford Focus.

Case unresolved: The noose at an Edmonds construction site

Though two were fired over comments about it, police were unable to determine who put it there.

To get drug money, Lynnwood man says he cut 911 wires

Those wires happened to be the ones used by 911 dispatchers, but emergency services weren’t affected.

Most Read