What Will Happen Inside the Vatican Conclave to Choose the Next Pope?

Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi of Cameroun joins fellow cardinals in prayer inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, April 18, 2005, at the beginning of the conclave.
Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi of Cameroun joins fellow cardinals in prayer inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, April 18, 2005, at the beginning of the conclave.

Before the 115 cardinal electors file into the Sistine Chapel for the conclave to choose the next pope on Tuesday, technicians will pull up the floorboards to install cell phone jamming devices.

Once there, the doors will be locked and the participants will have no newspapers, television or, for the social media savvy set, Twitter. They’ll get virtually nothing from the outside, other than food.

“It is the way of ensuring that the voice speaking to the cardinals during the conclave belongs to the Holy Spirit and no one else,” said ABC News Vatican consultant Father John Wauck.

The ritualistic conclave involves centuries-old customs that have changed very little over time.

The tradition of locking the doors dates back to 1274, when the cardinals met in the remote village of Viterbo.

Two years and eight months into the longest conclave ever, frustrated townspeople tried everything to motivate a quicker decision. They locked the cardinals inside and resorted to more extreme measures, trying to starve them out and tearing the roof off the building to expose them to the elements.

2013 Conclave

The cardinal electors in the upcoming conclave will be much more comfortable, surrounded by Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

A date for the secret date which literally means “with key,” won’t be set until the cardinals convene on March 4, a Vatican spokesman said.

Pope Benedict decreed a conclave could be held as soon as all voting cardinals are present. All cardinals under 80 when the papacy is vacated are eligible to participate.

While campaigning is forbidden inside the Sistine Chapel, experts say there is plenty of politicking in the days before.

More than half of the cardinal electors were appointed by Benedict, and many are using the days before the conclave to get to know each other and feel out the general sentiment.

As the conclave begins tomorrow, the cardinal electors will attend mass before filing into the Sistine Chapel. For one of the 115, it will likely be his last time wearing a red hat. The cardinal electors have a history of elevating one of their own to the papacy, so that lucky choice will exchange it for the pope’s traditional white.

Once inside the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals will take an oath of secrecy and then be given rectangular ballots with the words “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” written on them, meaning, “I elect as supreme pontiff.”

Each voting cardinal writes the name of his choice for pope on the ballot and is asked to disguise his handwriting to avoid letting others know who is supporting whom.

Three scrutineers count the ballots, and if no one receives the required two-thirds majority, the votes are burned. A black smoke signal will signal to the world the vote was inconclusive.

Damp straw was once used to turn the smoke black, Bellitto said, however after years of confusion, dye has reportedly been used.

There can be a maximum of four ballots in a single day, and if after three days the cardinals still haven’t selected a pope, the voting sessions can be suspended for a day of prayer and discussion.

Throughout the secret process, the cardinals will eat and sleep in a private guest house on the edge of Vatican city.

Only a select staff of doctors, cooks and housekeepers, all sworn to secrecy, are allowed to interact with the cardinals.

For approximately half of the cardinal electors, this will be their second time participating in the mystical event.

Cardinal William Levada of San Francisco, a first-timer, said his colleagues in the college of cardinals have given him an idea of what to expect.

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