New Pope's Election to Be Shrouded in Ritual, Secrecy

Hope Hamashige
for National Geographic News
April 2, 2005
Pope John Paul II's death today sets in motion a riveting mix of Roman
Catholic rituals and centuries-old customs, all set against a backdrop
of secret political intrigue.

(See exclusive video from inside the Vatican.)

The height of the public spectacle will be a grand funeral mass watched over by the elders of the church, protected by the Vatican's Swiss Guard security force, and attended by heads of state.

But much of the ceremony leading up to the naming of a new pope will take place behind closed doors. The church holds firmly to its traditions, and secrecy is among the traditions it honors best.

"Most of what goes on, with the exception of the funeral masses, nobody will see," said John L. Allen, Jr., author and Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. "All the mystery and intrigue surrounding this is part of its attraction."

Smoke Signals

The conclave, the process by which a new pope is chosen, will commence 15 to 20 days after the death of the Pope John Paul II.

One reason for the delay is to give cardinals the opportunity to participate in funeral masses for the pontiff. Another reason harks back to less modern times, when cardinals needed weeks to travel by horse or rail to the Vatican.

After taking an oath of secrecy in the Sistine Chapel, an official will call the Latin words extra omnes, meaning "everyone out." From that point on, the outside world will see only what the church wants them to see: a twice-daily puff of smoke.

Coming from within the Sistine Chapel, the smoke signal will tell the world that the cardinals have conducted one of their many votes during the electoral process.

The 117 cardinal-electors are required to vote morning and evening. They will pray and place their handwritten ballots in a chalice atop an altar. To safeguard the secrecy of the vote, the ballots will be counted and then burned.

If the cardinals don't reach the two-thirds majority needed to elect a new pope, the ballots will be mixed with a chemical to create wisps of black smoke when burned.

When the cardinals finally choose a prospective pope, the ballots will be burned without chemicals, producing a puff of white smoke.

After the potential new pope is selected—still behind closed doors—the dean of the College of Cardinals will ask the victor if he agrees to become the pontiff. When the new pope utters the word accepto, he will be asked to select a new name.

The tradition of taking new names dates to A.D. 533, when a priest named Mercury was selected. Wanting a more Catholic-sounding moniker, he changed his name to John.

The new pope will be outfitted in white vestments, several of which will have been made beforehand in various sizes. Then he will be allowed to greet the throngs awaiting his first appearance at St. Peter's Basilica's central window, where the pope traditionally gives his Easter blessing.

The World Changes; the Vatican Does Not

There is some historical precedent for the need for secrecy. In the papacy's early history political rulers and noble families tried to control the Catholic Church to further their own interests. At various times papal elections included laypeople and bishops and were subject to the approval of kings and queens.

The results read like a medieval soap opera. Popes were murdered, exiled, and threatened by nobility, and the papacy was often vacant for long periods while factions fought over it.

Conclave "started as a protection against governments that used to interfere with the voting and to preserve the freedom of the cardinals," noted Michael Fahey, a priest and professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "Now it is part of the ritual."

The current process of conclave was refined over time but reflects its turbulent past. In an effort to wrest control of the papacy from outside interests, Pope Nicholas II declared in 1059 that the cardinals had the exclusive right to elect a new pope.

In 1179 Pope Alexander III established that popes must be elected by a two-thirds majority.

Following the death of Pope Gregory IX in 1241, the cardinals, who were deeply divided, were locked in a palace until they reached a decision. This is where the term "conclave" comes from—it's a derivative of the Latin term cum clave, which means "with key."

It has been centuries since a German prince or Italian heiress plotted to take over the papacy. The Vatican, however, maintains that its secrecy ensures that the process doesn't become tainted.

Allen, the National Catholic Reporter correspodent, said the process is unlikely to change. "These rituals carry in them the history and the theology of the church," he said. "That is why even the small changes are met with controversy."

When Pope Paul VI did away with the papal throne, feeling it removed the pope from the people, he was criticized. And John Paul II—not known for shaking things up—declared that the cardinals can elect a pope by simple majority if, after 30 voting sessions, they are deeply deadlocked.

Should it come to that, Allen said, it will be controversial. "I think it is unlikely, because there is pressure not to appear divided," he said.

As much as it resists change, the Vatican adopted a truly modern change in 1975. Once the "everyone out" call is made, security experts sweep the Sistine Chapel for hidden listening devices. It's something of a no-change change, designed to maintain perhaps the conclave's greatest tradition of all: secrecy.

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