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Process of selecting a new pope is shrouded in secrecy

If past practice holds, Pope John Paul II will be entombed beneath St. Peter's Basilica in four to six days, though there's speculation that he'll be buried in his native Poland, the country whose freedom from communism he championed after he ascended to the papacy in 1978.

The rite to choose the pope's successor will begin within 15 to 20 days, when the so-called princes of the Roman Catholic Church—approximately 120 cardinals age 79 and younger—convene behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel.

The most important communication from the cardinals will come sometime later in the form of smoke wafting from a slim chimney pipe. Puffs of black smoke signal ballots that have failed to elect a pope; wisps of white smoke hail the selection of the man who will be the church's 265th pontiff.

How long that will take is unknown. It was three years before Gregory X was selected in the 13th century, and there have been 29 papal conclaves, as they are called, that lasted a month or more, said Thomas Reese, an author and editor of America magazine

But since 1831, when it took 54 days to elect a pope, no conclave has lasted longer than five days. John Paul II was elected after eight votes and two days, and he changed the rules in 1996 to make long deadlocks less likely. Previously, a pope had to carry two-thirds of the votes; now, if the conclave goes 12 days without a selection, cardinals may elect a pope by simple majority.

John Paul didn't explain why he changed the selection rule. Reese said the old method created an incentive for electors to compromise or move to another candidate; the new method allows a majority to back a candidate and then just wait until 12 days have passed to elect their candidate.

The selection process is shrouded in ceremony and secrecy. Even the name "conclave," a word derived from Latin for "with a key," suggests how the red-hatted cardinals are locked away to avoid outside influence.

The prelates' isolation in Vatican City is reinforced by the absence of phones, radios, televisions, newspapers, mail and, now, the Internet. Their rooms are swept for spy equipment, a precaution instituted by Pope Paul VI after the 1973-era Watergate scandal.

At the last conclave in 1978, cardinals bunked in Vatican offices that had been turned into temporary sleeping quarters. Some cardinals slept in marble rooms with paintings and frescoes by Raphael; some slept in a cellar. Since then, the Vatican has built a dormitory-like building, with suites and private rooms to accommodate the men.

In the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals take assigned places behind rows of long tables on each side of the chapel.

The Swiss Guards, who wear orange and blue uniforms still faithful to Michelangelo's Renaissance-era design, guard the men as they vote beneath the artist's frescoes. They are forbidden from ever disclosing for whom they voted.

The cardinals write their choices on 2-inch-wide ballots. They are instructed to disguise their handwriting. One at a time, in order of seniority, they approach the altar with the folded votes.

After kneeling in prayer, each cardinal rises and swears: "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." He places the ballot in a large chalice, covered by a plate, or paten.

If there's no consensus in as many as four votes a day, the ballots are burned with wet straw, which produces black smoke, signifying no new pope. White smoke heralding the election of a new pontiff is produced when ballots are burned with dry straw.

Within an hour of the white smoke, a cardinal appears on a balcony at St. Peter's, lifts his right hand for silence and intones in Latin:

"I announce to you a great joy. We have a new pope." Then he reveals who's been selected and what his papal name will be.

The custom of popes taking new names dates back 1,500 years to John II, who thought it a more appropriate papal moniker than his birth name of Mercury, also the name of a Roman mythological god.

The new pope emerges on the balcony and blesses Urbi et orbi—Rome and the world.


For more information on the papal transition, visit


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

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