Secrets of the conclave selecting the next pope

  • Updated: March 10, 2013 - 12:08 AM

With voting set to begin Tuesday, here’s a guide to the process and how world will find out.


Firefighters on Saturday place the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, where cardinals will gather to elect the new pope, at the Vatican.

Photo: GREGORIO BORGIA • Associated Press ,

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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’s a look at what happens between those moments:



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 Feb. 28 resignation. As electing pontiffs is considered their most important job, all eligible cardinals are expected to participate in the conclave. Two of the 117 qualified “princes” of the church will not attend — a seriously ill Indonesian cardinal and a Scottish cardinal who acknowledged sexually inappropriate conduct.


secrets never to be revealed

One by one, cardinals place their hand on a book of Gospels and swear to follow the conclave’s strict 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 closest rival.


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.



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 that are potentially hidden.


INSPIRATION from above

No chatting is allowed during the conclave, but 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 depictions of the damned.



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.

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