Conclave: Modern twists to ancient rules

2013-03-05 21:21
(Picture: AFP)

(Picture: AFP)

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Vatican City - Ritual words, uttered in Latin, open and close the secret selection process of the new pope.

It starts with "Extra omnes" - or "Everyone out" - expelling all but voting cardinals from the Sistine Chapel where conclave balloting takes place.

It ends with "Accepto" - "I accept" - the solemn word the victorious cardinal utters to confirm the judgment of peers who have given him the two-thirds majority needed to become pope.

Here is a look at what happens between those two moments:

Who's inside:

Under a rule change by Pope Paul VI in 1970, cardinals who are younger than 80 at the time the papacy become vacant are eligible to vote. This time, two cardinals squeaked under the age limit, since their 80th birthday comes just after Benedict XVI's 28 February resignation.

As electing pontiffs is considered their most important job, all eligible cardinals are expected to participate in the conclave. So far, only two of the 117 qualified "princes" of the church have begged off - a seriously ill Indonesian cardinal and a Scottish cardinal who acknowledged sexually inappropriate conduct.

Mum's the word:

One by one, cardinals place their hand on a book of Gospels and swear to follow the conclave's strict and detailed rules, including never to reveal what went on during the conclave. But the adage "rules are made to be broken" seems to hold true here - even at the risk of excommunication.

Months after Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, excerpts of an anonymous cardinal's diary were published. Among the unverifiable revelations: Argentine Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the German's closest rival in the voting.

No tweeting or texting:

While cardinals are sequestered in the Vatican City's hotel, the modern Santa Marta residence, the Vatican wants to make sure the Holy Spirit is the only influence on the red-hatted prelates as they vote. That means no TV, radio, newspapers, cellphones or landlines.

The precaution cuts both ways. No info getting in or out. Cardinals with Twitter accounts will have to be tweet-less during the conclave. 


While the elector cardinals swear themselves to secrecy, there's no such oath for non-Vatican types. Vatican security forces will therefore sweep the Sistine Chapel for any hidden microphones or other eavesdropping devices.

Jamming equipment installed under a false floor should be able to detect any cellphones or other electronic devices potentially hidden in the folds of cardinals' crimson robes or behind the fabric skirting the simple tables that will double as desks for the cardinals when they fill out their ballots.


While no chatting is allowed during the conclave, cardinals can always seek inspiration from higher levels.

Just above their heads is Michelangelo's exquisitely frescoed ceiling. And if they need a reminder about the oath of secrecy, on the wall behind the chapel's altar is the artist's Last Judgment - with its frightening depictions of the damned.

Latin Ballots:

Even the words the cardinals will write on the ballots will be in Latin, with each of them prefacing his choice for pontiff with the words "Eligo in summen pontificem", or "I elect as supreme pontiff" and then the name. Ballots are folded and stuffed into an urn to await being counted.

Smoke signals:

After the ballots are counted, they are tied together with needle and thread. They are then placed in an iron stove, whose narrow chimney will channel the smoke up into the outside world, where the faithful will watch in St Peter's Square to see if the smoke is black - no pope yet - or white - a pope has been chosen.

Confusion has reigned at times. In 1958, the damp straw that cardinals had tossed into their burning ballots apparently didn't catch fire, and the smoke was white instead of black. After John Paul's death in 2005, the Vatican used special chemicals in an effort to make the colour clear - with only limited success.

If in doubt, don't just look. Listen. The bells of St Peter's Basilica will be set ringing when a new pope has been chosen.

How long does it take:

In centuries past, conclaves dragged on for weeks and months, sometimes years. In a 13th century conclave, which stretched for weeks, a leading candidate died.

In these quick-paced times, it is unlikely that the conclave will go on more than a few days. Except for the first day, when only one round of balloting takes place, cardinals will vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon until a pope is chosen.

The longest conclave of the last century went on for 14 rounds over five days, and yielded Pius XI - in 1922.

This century's only conclave - which brought in Benedict as pope - went four rounds over two days before the Latin announcement rang out across St Peter's Square from the basilica's balcony: "Habemus papam" - We have a pope!

Read more on:    roman catholic church  |  pope benedict xvi  |  pope francis  |  vatican city  |  religion

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