It comes as no surprise that the word conclave derives from the Latin cum clavis, meaning “place closed by key.” For one, this event, which takes place every time a new pope is to be elected, involves the cardinals of the Catholic Church held under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel until a new leader is decided upon. Secondly, Roman travelers venturing to see Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” might be surprised to find that it is also “closed by key,” since the Sistine Chapel is closed to the general public from March 5 at 1pm until further notice. The rest of the museums, however, are open for business.
Now, for those of you with crestfallen looks of disappointment in missing the Michelangelo masterpiece, hold your horses (and cameras). You might not get to view the painting you’ve seen in hundreds of pictures, but what you will receive is a much rarer experience: witnessing the pomp and circumstance that comes every however-many-decades with the election of a new pope. Here, we’ve got all you need to know to understand this rare event, whether you’re in Rome or keeping up from home.
After a few rough periods of long vacancies between popes in the 13th century, the idea of the conclave was instituted by Pope Gregory X, who declared that a conclave would take place upon the need for a new pope and that all responsible cardinals would be locked in a room until the decision was made. For centuries when the meeting was held, the men were literally locked, not allowed to leave even to sleep, and their food rations diminished day by day so as to give them an often-needed push to hurry up and choose. Traditionally, the fatal meeting took place 15+ days after the death of a pope, in order to allow the Cardinals from around the world to arrive at the Vatican. However, with this rather unique situation, the rules are being reconsidered and the decision might very well be made before the usual 15 days.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel will host the College of Cardinals, or in actuality, those under 80, as the church has deemed the over-80 members not fit to vote. The men will gather and choose a new leader, who by Catholic law can be any age and has to be a man but does not even have to be religious clergy. (There are rumors of a female Pope Joan, even though it is dismissed by the church as a myth.) The cardinals deliberate in the Chapel for as long as needed – the lengthiest being 100 days – during which every day the participants vote by ballot. Each cardinal writes in Latin, Eligo in summen pontificem, or I elect as supreme pontiff accompanied by a name, then folds their ballot and stuffs it in an urn. The ballots are counted at the end of the day, tied together with a needle and thread, and burned. The smoke carries through the Sistine Chapel’s chimney and acts as a signal to those anxiously gathered outside: black smoke means no pope, white smoke means that a new leader was chosen. If in doubt (such as when an event happens like the one in 1958 when the cardinals accidentally set off white smoke instead of black before a pope was elected), listen for the bells: St. Peter’s will send them ringing from its massive Duomo.
Who Will It Be?
Although there can be no way of knowing who will be elected, there is some speculation. One of the leading candidates is Luis Tagle (called Chito), who is the youngest cardinal in the conclave and can be more than capable of taking over the newly established papal Twitter account. Three Italian cardinals in the running are Gianfranco Ravasi, Mauro Piacenza, and Angelo Scola, and the church might just advance enough to choose its first black pope, who could be either Nigerian Francis Arinze or Peter Turkson from Ghana.