‘Inside’ the Conclave

There is a mystique surrounding the election process of a pope; almost as much as who becomes pope. While it would be rude to second-guess the cardinal electors in Rome – not to mention the Holy Spirit – it is possible to describe how the Conclave works.

Conclave refers to the private and secret process of papal election.  Up to 120 cardinals, all under the age of 80, gather in Rome to elect a new pope.  In theory they could choose any baptised adult Catholic man; in practice for the last five hundred years or so, the pope is elected from one of their number.

The cardinals start by gathering together into a General Congregation, usually to bury and mourn the deceased pope (though not in this election, of course).  The Congregation sets the date for the commencement of the conclave, the election itself.  During this period, too, cardinals from around the world get to meet each other, prayerfully assess the state and needs of the Church, and reflect on what qualities are needed in the next pope.  There is no formal canvassing or presenting of manifestoes – but the cardinals do have this chance to get to know each other’s minds.

On the day the Conclave begins, they gather for Mass in St Peter’s Basilica and proceed in the afternoon to the Sistine Chapel (under the famous paintings of Michelangelo) where each cardinal elector takes an oath to abide by the rules of procedure, in particular to maintain absolute secrecy in the election.  All personal and public communication with the outside world ceases; in recent years the Sistine Chapel and the rooms where the cardinals sleep are systematically swept for bugging devices.  When all non-voters have been ushered out, the doors are closed and the voting process begins.

Each day there are two ballots – until a pope is elected.  Each elector tries as best he can to conceal his handwriting so that anonymity is preserved.  When all have voted, three appointed cardinals serve as scrutineers: they read, note and finally announce the name on each ballot paper, all of which are immediately threaded by needle onto a string and bound together.

If the required number of votes to elect the pope is not reached, the ballots are burnt with a chemical that results in black smoke issuing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.  If a pope is elected, they are burnt without the chemicals, resulting in the famous white smoke.

Initially, to be elected pope, the candidate requires two thirds of all votes counted.  After three unsuccessful days (six ballots), a day’s break is called, for prayer and reflection.  Up to seven further ballots (3.5 days duration) may follow.  Finally, after another break day, it becomes a run-off vote between the two highest contenders – in effect a majority of 50% plus 1 vote.

The election is usually resolved sooner than this ‘tiebreaker’.  Pope Benedict was elected, for example, on the fourth ballot in the second day of the conclave.

The candidate is asked to accept the result and, on saying “Accepto” and announcing the name he will use as pope, dresses in papal white as the white smoke announces “Habemus papam!”, words echoed by the Cardinal Deacon as he presents the new pope to the world.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

See more from Anthony Egan SJ
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Click to subscribe to: