What Happens Inside the Conclave

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The lack of a clear front-runner for the papacy and the Vatileaks corruption scandal looming in the background could make the upcoming conclave of cardinals a longer and difficult process, according to some Vatican analysts.

The 2013 papal election is the 75th conclave in the history of the Catholic church since 1295. At that time, Pope Boniface VIII ruled that cardinals to elect a pope had to stay in a locked room — cum clave (Latin for “with a key”).

Breaking with tradition, the 115 crimson robed cardinals who will elect the 266th pope in the history of the Catholic Church and the secular sovereign of the Vatican City, won’t be locked all day under Michelangelo’s painted ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.

They will eat meals and sleep in the nearby Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse, which has rooms equipped with queen-size beds, high speed Internet connections, telephones and large screen televisions. However, the cardinals won’t enjoy the electronic amenities as all connections with the outside world will be cut off.

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To ensure cardinals are not tempted to check their email, the Vatican has installed sophisticated jamming devices around the chapel to prevent any leaking.

In the unlikely event that a cardinal disobeys the vow on secrecy, he will be excommunicated, according to one of the last edicts signed by Pope Benedict before his abrupt resignation.

In the past, a conclave offered much more severe conditions. Cardinals had to sleep in open dormitories — curtains between beds were not introduced until 1351 — and if no election was made within three days, only one meal a day was served.

If after eight days no pope was elected, the cardinals were to receive only bread and water.

The longest conclave ever took two years, nine months and two days and ended with the election of Gregory X on Sept. 1, 1271.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the longest conclave lasted five days and produced Pope Pius XI in 1922. The shortest, a day, elected Pius XII in 1939 and John Paul I in 1978.

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In 2005 it took four ballots to elect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, while his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was elected following eight rounds spaced out over three days.

Up to four ballots are held each day. Each ballot is cast on a slip of paper, and then placed into a small plate which is used to tip the ballot into a silver and gilded bronze urn.

The votes are then read aloud to the cardinals, and recorded in a ledger. They are then placed in another urn to be burned. Two stoves serve the purpose.

The one where the ballots will be burned was first used in 1939 to elect Pope Pius XII in just three ballots. Another, more modern stove was introduced in 2005 to augment the smoke, as the paper used for the ballots didn’t produce enough smoke to send a clear signal out into St. Peter’s square.

If there is no result, chemicals are added to produce black smoke. If a pope is elected, a cartridge is used to make white smoke, which floats up the chimney above the chapel to announce the “habemus papam” (we have a Pope) moment.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, bells will ring along as the white smoke puffs out of the chimney.

From that time, it will take about 40 minutes for the Pope to give his blessing from the Basilica’s balcony.

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“The Pope must accept the papacy, change wardrobe and obtain obedience from the cardinals. He will also take time to pray,” Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said at a press conference today.

The new Pope will be announced by the French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran with the famous Latin formula “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam” (I announce to you a great joy. We have a pope!). Tauran will then announce the elected cardinal and the papal name he has chosen.

To avoid interminable conclaves, John Paul’s rules established that if no one has been elected by a two-thirds majority after about the first 12 days, the pope can be elected by a simple majority.

But Benedict issued an amendment in his last decree, eliminating the possibility of election by a simple majority and ruling that “the provision of a two-thirds majority of the cardinals present and voting for a valid election will remain.” In this case, at least 77 votes are required to be elected the 265th successor of St.Peter.

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According to Vatican expert John Allen, Benedict’s new rules may affect the cardinals psychologically.

“This time, the cardinals know that whomever’s elected has to draw support from two-thirds of the college under any circumstances, which may mean they’re less inclined to simply jump on a bandwagon when someone gets half the votes in a given round,” Allen wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.

A first ballot may take place Tuesday after the 115 voting cardinals have entered the Sistine Chapel. Smoke is expected between 6:30 and 8 p.m.

“Most likely, it will be black smoke,” Father Lombardi said.

Image: Getting ready for the conclave in the Sistine Chapel. Credit: Rossella Lorenzi

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