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Conclave steeped in tradition, but some are a fairly recent vintage

VATICAN CITY—The Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals sequesters itself in strict secrecy Monday afternoon to elect the next pope, as onlookers prepare to watch for the white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel roof that would signal a winner.

Just as it's happened since the church's founding, right?

Well, not exactly.

The cardinals have picked the pope exclusively only since 1059, a long time, but still just half the church's history; before that Roman nobles and regular citizens had a say.

Other traditions are more recent in origin.

It wasn't until the 20th century that cardinals faced ex-communication if they revealed details of the conclave. Pius X imposed that rule after he was scandalized by extremely accurate newspaper accounts of how he became pope in 1903: Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, notified that a French-backed candidate was poised to be elected, sent word that he was unacceptable, paving the way for Pius X's election.

And the white smoke? It first appeared in 1914, according to Fred Baumgartner, a history professor at Virginia Tech University who researched conclave history in the Vatican archives for his 2003 book, "Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections."

"I worked very hard at trying to find evidence of (white) smoke being used a signal before then, and it just doesn't exist," said Baumgarner, whose book is the most comprehensive English-language history of the conclave.

To be sure, the conclave that begins Monday is steeped in tradition and precedent. But the rules and rituals surrounding the papal elections have evolved dramatically over time.

This year's election is a striking example of that: In 1996, John Paul II decreed a new set of conclave bylaws that include some major changes. Cardinals will be staying in a spacious new hotel instead of a cramped dorm; and they will be able to elect a pope with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds margin if a consensus doesn't emerge through the first 34 ballots, or about 12 days.

Though such a scenario is seen as unlikely, some analysts believe the late pope intended to make sure that the small group of progressives in the College of Cardinals couldn't hold out to block a conservative.

What is a conclave, and how does it work?

The word comes from a Latin phrase for "with a key," and it refers to the practice, which began in the Middle Ages, of locking the cardinals in a room until they came out with a new pope.

Before that, though, in the early centuries of the church, the Bishop of Rome was chosen through a consensus of church members in the city, scholars say. They weren't called popes, and they didn't have much influence over bishops elsewhere. Although Rome was where St. Peter founded the Christian Church, Constantinople, now Istanbul, was more dominant in the early days.

In medieval times, as the Roman church became the center of what by then was the western branch of Christianity, papal elections became the subject of intrigue among Roman ruling families. (Until 1870, the pope controlled large parts of what is now Italy, and so was a temporal as well as spiritual ruler.)

"This was not a good time to be pope," sociologist and novelist Father Andrew Greeley wrote recently. "A third of popes elected between 872 and 1012 died violent deaths, often because they resisted the schemes of the Roman nobility."

Celibacy didn't become a requirement until the 12th century, so sometimes popes' elevated their sons to the papal throne. Votes in papal elections routinely were bought and sold. To end secular intrigue, in 1059 it was decided that only cardinals would elect popes.

The known instance of locking up the cardinals—there were only 12 at the time—came during the conclave of 1241. It was a sweltering August, the latrines weren't cleaned, and one cardinal took ill and died. The new pope, Celestine IV, survived just 17 days.

Later in the century, cardinals' diets occasionally were restricted to bread, water and wine if they didn't reach a decision after a week.

Despite the various hardships, conclaves sometimes dragged on for months, perhaps because so much political power was at stake. No conclave in the 20th century, by contrast, has lasted longer than five days.

For much of history, most cardinals were Italian or European. And even as the college diversified, cardinals from other continents often had trouble getting to Rome in time to vote. In 1929, for example, two American cardinals pulled into Rome's central station a half hour after the pope had been elected.

Jet travel has solved that problem. For this conclave, 115 cardinals, half from outside Europe, will assemble.

At 4.30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. EDT) they are scheduled to file in procession from the Hall of Blessings into the 15th century Sistine Chapel, preceded by the cross and the book of the Gospels, and accompanied by the singing of the Litany of the Saints.

This will be the first conclave in the Sistine Chapel since Michelangelo's stunning ceiling frescoes were restored to their colorful brilliance in the 1990s.

Once inside the chapel, the cardinals will take a group oath promising to follow the rules of procedure, and in particular swearing to keep secret "what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting."

Then the master of papal liturgical ceremonies will utter the words, "Extra omnes"—everyone out, the signal for all but the cardinals and a few support workers to leave.

The remaining support staff—cleaners, cooks, doctors, drivers and Swiss guards—must also take an oath of secrecy.

Cardinals will be shielded from the outside world and prohibited from using cell phones, pagers or the Internet, but their freedom of movement will be far greater than in conclaves' past. That's because John Paul II ordered the construction of a $20 million hotel, the Domus Sancta Martha, where most cardinals will have suites with living rooms, as opposed to the cramped, dormitorylike accommodations of 1978.

They will also be allowed to take strolls in the Vatican Gardens, though they are bound by rule not to talk to anyone accept other cardinals. Cardinals will also be free to go about the Vatican between voting sessions.

The rules call for four votes a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. There is no debate inside the chapel; any discussion takes place elsewhere. At the last conclave, Latin was the language used, but it has since fallen from favor for church conversation and this time the cardinals are likely to be conferring in Italian.

If no pope has been chosen after three days, the rules call for a pause of up to one day for prayer, "informal discussion among the voters," and a brief spiritual exhortation by the senior cardinal-deacon.

After the pause, voting continues for another seven ballots, followed by another pause if there is no consensus, seven more ballots, and so on, until there have been up to 34 ballots extending over 12 days.

At this point John Paul II's new provision calls for the cardinals to "express an opinion about the manner of proceeding. The election will then proceed in accordance with what the absolute majority of the electors decides."

The votes are cast on rectangular ballots inscribed with the words "I elect as supreme pontiff" in Latin. The ballots are designed to be folded, and cardinals are told to disguise their handwriting.

After they fill them out, the cardinals will walk up and place them on a plate, then slide them into a specially designed urn. The votes will be counted by three cardinals, called scrutineers.

Once counted, the ballots are burned in a stove whose chimney goes through the Sistine Chapel roof. If the smoke is black, it means no winner was declared. If a pope has been named, tradition since 1914 calls for the smoke to be white.

In 1978, bad weather and technical glitches produced a grayish smoke and confusion over whether a pope had been picked. So this time, special chemicals will be added to make sure the smoke is the correct color, and, to make sure there's no confusion, John Paul decreed that the bells of St. Peter's will also be rung.

After formally accepting, the new pope will be dressed in white vestments, choosing from among three sizes already on hand, courtesy of the Gammarelli family, which has been tailoring for popes since the mid-1800s.

Then a senior cardinal will go to the central window of St. Peter's Basilica, and utter the immortal words to the throngs assembled below:

"Habemus Papam"—We have a pope.

Minutes later, the new Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church will appear in the window to say a few words and open in new chapter in history.


(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050415 Sistine Chapel, 20050415 Vatican hotel

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