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papal conclave


More than 100 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have gathered to Vatican for a new pope election. At some point, white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel will show that a decision has been made.

What goes on behind the closed doors before the smoke appears?

Here are 10 lesser-known facts about the papal conclave.

1. It’s a lock-in. Conclave comes from the Latin “cum-clave” meaning literally “with key” – the cardinal-electors will be locked in the Sistine Chapel each day until Benedict XVI’s successor is chosen. The tradition dates back to 1268, when after nearly three years of deliberation the cardinals had still not agreed on a new pope, prompting the people of Rome to hurry things up by locking them up and cutting their rations. Duly elected, the new pope, Gregory X, ruled that in future cardinals should be sequestered from the start of the conclave.

2. Spying is tricky. During the conclave they are allowed no contact with the outside the world – no papers, no TV, no phones, no Twitter. And the world is allowed no contact with them. The threat of excommunication hangs over any cardinal who breaks the rules.

Before the conclave starts, the Sistine Chapel is swept for recording equipment and hidden cameras. It is a myth that a fake floor is laid to cater for anti-bugging devices… Anti-bugging devices are used, and the floor is raised, but only to protect the marble mosaic floor.

3. Portable loos play an essential role. Until 2005, the cardinals endured Spartan conditions in makeshift “cells” close to the Sistine Chapel. They slept on hard beds and were issued with chamber pots. Pope John Paul II changed that with the construction of a five-storey 130-room guest house near St Peter’s – Domus Sanctae Marthae (St Martha’s House). But cardinals still have to rough it while voting. In an interview with the Catholic News Service last week, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museum said: “I believe they may be installing portable chemical toilets inside the chapel.”

4. An “interregnum” is ending. The pontificate used to be known as a “reign” – hence the period between two popes being called an interregnum (“between reigns”). Many of the regal trappings of the papacy were set aside by Pope Paul VI, who began his pontificate in 1963 with a coronation, but never wore the beehive-shaped papal tiara again.

More than 100 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have gathered to Vatican for a new pope election

More than 100 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have gathered to Vatican for a new pope election

5. Counted votes are sewn up. The cardinals hold one vote on day one and then two each morning and afternoon until a candidate wins a two-thirds majority. Each writes his choice on a slip of paper, in disguised handwriting, and folds it in half. Cardinals then process to the altar one by one and place the ballots in an urn. The papers are mixed, counted, opened and scrutinized by three cardinals, the third of whom passes a needle and thread through the counted votes. At the end of each morning and afternoon session the papers are burned.

6. Chemicals color the smoke. Those 115 ballot papers produce an unusual amount of smoke… which pours out of a chimney specially installed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. A chemical is mixed with the paper to produce black smoke when voting is inconclusive, or white smoke when a pope has been elected. But even the white smoke looks dark against a bright sky, so to avoid any possible confusion, white smoke is accompanied by the pealing of bells. In 2005, though, the official responsible for authorizing the bells was temporarily occupied with other duties, so there was a period of confusion while white smoke billowed out, and the bells of St Peter’s remained silent.

7. Robes are prepared in S, M and L. The Pope has to look the part when he is presented to the faithful from a balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square. So papal tailors Gammarelli prepare three sets of vestments – in small, medium and large sizes. These will include a white cassock, a white silk sash, a white zucchetto (skullcap), red leather shoes and a red velvet mozzetta or capelet with ermine trim – a style revived by Benedict XVI. The Pope dresses by himself, donning a gold-corded pectoral cross and a red embroidered stole. (Popes traditionally wore red, but in 1566 St Pius V, a Dominican, decided to continue wearing his white robes. Only the Pope’s red mozzetta, capelet and shoes remain from the pre-1566 days.)

8. Huge bets are laid. Experts suggest more than $15 million will be wagered as people guess which cardinal will get the nod – making this the world’s most bet-upon non-sporting event. It’s not a new phenomenon. In 1503 betting on the pope was already referred to as “an old practice”. Pope Gregory XIV was so cheesed off that in 1591 he threatened punters with excommunication, but the gambling continues unabated. Prominent Italian and Latin American names currently lead the field.

9. Just say yes. Technically, an elected Pope can refuse to take up the position, but it’s not really done to turn down the Holy Spirit. That said, few relish the prospect of leading the world’s largest Church, beset as it is at the moment with falling congregation numbers, sex abuse scandals and internal wrangling. So many new popes are overcome with emotion after their election that the first room they enter, to dress for the balcony scene, is commonly known as the Room of Tears.

10. There is no gender test. Chairs with a large hole cut in the seat are sometimes thought to have been used to check the sex of a new Pope. The story goes that the aim of the checks was to prevent a repeat of the scandal of “Pope Joan”, a legendary female cardinal supposedly elected pope in the 14th Century. Most historians agree that the Joan story is nonsense. Examples of the chairs, the sedes stercoraria, are apparently held in museums, but their purpose is unclear. One unconfirmed theory is that they were used to check that the new pope had not been castrated.

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The papal conclave has failed to elect a new pope after first day of voting at Vatican.

Black smoke rising from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel indicated that their ballot had been inconclusive.

The 115 cardinal-electors will vote four times daily until two-thirds can agree on a single candidate.

The election was prompted by the surprise abdication of Benedict XVI. There is no clear frontrunner to take over from him as head of the Church.

The vote was the first held by the cardinals since they entered the conclave on Tuesday afternoon, and was not expected to produce a positive result.

Crowds who had braved rain and storms to watch the start of the conclave on big screens in St Peter’s Square cheered as the black smoke appeared.

The electors will now return to their hotel for the night and go back to the chapel on Wednesday morning to resume voting.

White smoke from the chimney will indicate that a new pope has been chosen.

Pope Benedict’s resignation and the recent damage to the Church’s reputation make the choice of the cardinal-electors especially hard to predict.

At 16:30 local time on Tuesday, 115 cardinal-electors – all under 80, as those over 80 are excluded – entered the Sistine Chapel, chanting the traditional Litany of the Saints.

The papal conclave has failed to elect a new pope after first day of voting at Vatican as black smoke rising from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel indicated that their ballot had been inconclusive

The papal conclave has failed to elect a new pope after first day of voting at Vatican as black smoke rising from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel indicated that their ballot had been inconclusive

Each man in turn stepped up and placed his hands on the Gospel to swear an oath in Latin.

Afterwards Msgr Guido Marini, papal master of ceremonies, called out the words “Extra omnes” – “Everybody out” – and the chapel doors were locked to outsiders.

From now on the cardinals will eat, vote and sleep in closed-off areas until a new pope is chosen.

Jamming devices in the Sistine Chapel should block all electronic communication and anyone tweeting would in any case risk being excommunicated.

Earlier on Tuesday the cardinals attended a “Mass for the Election of the Supreme Pontiff” in St Peter’s Basilica.

In his homily, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, praised the “brilliant pontificate” of Pope Benedict and implored God to grant another “Good Shepherd” to lead the church.

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The Vatican is considering calls from cardinals to hold a papal conclave earlier than planned, after Pope Benedict XVI steps down on February 28.

Catholic Church officials want a successor to be in place before the start of Holy Week on March 24 – the most important event in the Christian calendar.

Under current rules, the vote cannot be held before March 15, to give cardinals enough time to travel to Rome.

The Vatican is now examining the possibility of changing the rule.

According to the Holy See’s constitution, a 15-20 day waiting period must be observed after the papacy becomes vacant.

The rule is in place to allow “all those [cardinals] who are absent” sufficient time to make the journey to Rome, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

But the prospect of bringing forward the date had been raised by a number of cardinals, he added.

And given that they already knew when Pope Benedict was stepping down, they would have plenty of time to plan their trip.

“It is possible that church authorities can prepare a proposal to be taken up by the cardinals on the first day after the papal vacancy,” Federico Lombardi said.

The rules on papal succession were open to interpretation and “this is a question that people are discussing”, he said.

Officials in charge want to ensure that Pope Benedict’s successor is installed well in time for the liturgical celebrations at Easter, the most important date in the church’s calendar.

As there is no precedent in modern times for the resignation of a pope, ecclesiastical lawyers are having to re-examine very carefully the rules for papal elections laid down in past centuries and updated most recently by Pope Benedict himself, our correspondent explains.

Some of the 117 Cardinal electors from around the world who will choose the next pope in a secret ballot in the Sistine Chapel are expected to begin arriving in Rome as early as next week, he says.

As soon as there is a quorum, they will decide on a date to begin their conclave. In order to be elected, the new pope will need a majority of two thirds plus one vote.

Pope Benedict XVI was elected after only four ballots in 2005.

The 85-year-old pontiff announced his shock resignation last Monday, citing his advanced age as the reason for stepping down.

Pope Benedict is expected to spend his retirement in a monastery at the Vatican.

Last week, Pope Benedict hinted he would withdraw into seclusion at the end of this month.

“Even if I am withdrawing into prayer, I will always be close to all of you… even if I remain hidden to the world,” he told a meeting of priests in Rome.

The last pontiff to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who quit in 1415 amid a schism within the Church.