Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation has caused an uproar: as the first papal abdication in 600 years, no one is quite sure how the future 266th leader of the Catholic Church will feel about having his predecessor alive. What the retired pope will be called, much less how he’ll dress, is unclear. But we do know that elections for the next Bishop of Rome will proceed as usual.
Conclave has been the procedure for choosing the pope for more than half of the time the church has been in existence. During the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, Pope Gregory X declared that cardinal electors should be locked in seclusion cum clave (“with a key”) and not permitted to leave until a new Bishop of Rome was chosen.
Conclave proceedings are shrouded in secrecy, therefore very little is known about the voting process. There are, however, good historical reasons why the cardinals swear to keep quiet: up until the early 20th century, papal elections could be vetoed by the Holy Roman Emperor or the kings of France and Spain. The power was rarely invoked but was used in the 1903 conclave by Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph to block the election of the Vatican’s secretary of state. The eventual winner, Pius X, immediately abolished the veto power. Many believe that the memory of outside intervention has continued to weigh over the College of Cardinals to this day, hence the vow of secrecy expected of each cardinal when he enters the conclave. Punishment for violating the vow is excommunication.
Loose tongues are not uncommon, however. In 2005, a cardinal broke his vow of secrecy and anonymously released his “diary” describing the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. The diary begins:
Sunday, April 17: In the afternoon I took over my room at the Casa Santa Marta. I put down my bags and tried to open the blinds because the room was dark. I wasn't able to. One of my fellow brothers asked a nun working there, thinking it was a technical problem. She explained they were sealed. Closure of the conclave...
The diary went on to say that Cardinal Jose Policarpo da Crux snuck outside for an after-dinner cigar (smoking was forbidden in the hotel), and explained how Cardinal Walter Kasper preferred walking through the Vatican gardens rather than taking the minibus to the Sistine Chapel.
Conclave begins with the cardinals filing into the Sistine Chapel. Only those under the age of 80 are eligible to vote. They first chant the Litany of Saints, followed by the Veni Creator Spiritus; taking their places before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, the cardinals place their hand on the Gospel and take their vow of secrecy.
Only one round of voting occurs on the first day of conclave. In the days following, cardinals cast two votes in the morning and two in the afternoon. Written on the upper half of the rectangular ballots are the words Eligo in summen pontificem (“I elect as Supreme Pontiff”); on the lower half, a space to write the nominee. Upon completing his ballot, each cardinal deposits his vote in a metal ballot box on the altar.
A two-thirds majority is necessary. After the votes are counted and the outcomes announced, the ballots are tied together with a needle and thread and burned in the Sistine Chapel stove. A chemical is added to give the signal: black smoke if a decision has not yet been reached, white smoke if the pope has been chosen.
The chosen cardinal is asked by the senior deacon of the College of Cardinals if he accepts becoming pope. Once he agrees, the senior deacon steps out onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica and shouts Habemus Papam ("We have a pope")! The new pope adopts the papal name of his choosing, pulls on his new robes and presents himself on the balcony. He then gives his first blessing: Urbi et Orbi ("to the City [of Rome] and to the World").
Historically it could take months, if not years, for a decision to be reached. To speed up the process strict papal bulls have been imposed: under Gregory X it was ruled that after three days of the conclave, the cardinals were to receive only one meal a day; after another five days, they were to be given only bread and water. In the past the sequestered cardinals were even forced to eat and sleep in the Sistine Chapel. Now the cardinals are provided with a comfortable hotel and restaurant in Vatican City, but they are still forbidden from having any contact with the outside world.