Secret Conclave to Elect Pope

On Monday, 115 Roman Catholic cardinals will assemble in a secret, tradition-filled conclave to elect the next pope. For nearly 500 years, the overwhelming majority of popes have come from Italy. However, cardinals from continents like Africa and Latin America have also been mentioned as potential candidates.

In recent days, the cardinals have been tight lipped with the media. They have vowed to not violate the absolute secrecy of the conclave, risking excommunication from the church if they do. A brief sampling of the potential popes shows a diverse field.

Among the European candidates, conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 78, appears to one of the front-runners, according Agence France Presse. Since 1981, he has headed the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which is responsible for enforcing Church orthodoxy. He was a close friend of John Paul II and officiated his burial.

Italian Cardinal of Milan Dionigi Tettamanzi, 71, is a theologian who was often consulted by John Paul II. He has staunchly defended the former pope’s moral positions on abortion and euthanasia. One encyclical he worked on was “Splendor of Truth,” which defended absolute morals against liberal theologians, according to the Washington Post.

Of non-Europeans, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, 72, has been called a prime candidate. Since 2002 he has headed the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments. He is known as an expert in dialogue with believers of other faiths, especially Muslims. One important factor that could propel him into the papacy is that the number of Catholics in Africa has been growing quickly, by one third in the last decade, according to the Post.

From Latin America, which now has nearly half of all Catholics, comes a talked about candidate from Brazil, Claudio Hummes, 70, the cardinal of Sao Paulo. Known as a “peacemaker,” he has mediated labor disputes, welcomed new Catholic movements into the church without pushing outside older groups, and has worked to improve relations between Christians and Jews, according to the Catholic Telegraph.

Virtually no outsiders will be allowed to listen in on the discussions and debates taking place behind closed doors. Only a few non-cardinals will be allowed access including housekeeping staff and medical doctors also sworn to keep silent, according to the Associated Press.

Those gathered to elect are known collectively as the College of Cardinals. Although they can technically choose any baptized Catholic male, tradition dictates that they will choose amongst themselves. Current rules show that although no cardinal over 80 may vote, each is allowed to take part in the discussions.

Voting will take place inside the Sistine Chapel. The practice of holding secret conclaves arose as a way for Cardinals to be forced to reach agreement quickly without the bother of distractions or governments trying to influence the election, according to the British Broadcasting Company.

Once the Cardinals are in the conclave area, the Latin command of “extra ommes” (“everyone out”) will go out indicating that all non-voters should leave before the doors are closed. They swear to an oath of secrecy and vote once on the afternoon of the first day. If a pope is not elected, from the second day forward, two ballots are held in the morning and two in the afternoon.

As the cardinals vote in order of precedence, each one places the paper ballot in a chalice at the altar that is then covered by a silver plate. The cardinal then pronounces, “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.”

The papers are then mixed, counted and opened. After noting the outcome, the ballots are burned with special additives that can make the smoke black or white, depending on the outcome. Black smoke indicates that the cardinals did not yet choose on a pope. White smoke indicates that a new pope has been chosen.

During the upcoming conclave, the sound of bells will also accompany the white smoke. In 1978, at the last choosing, there had been complaints of “grey” smoke, according to the BBC.

The candidate is then asked if he accepts the office of “Supreme Pontiff.” If he accepts, he is asked what name he would like to be called.

After he has chosen a name, the new pope is tailored and fitted into his new robes and the cry goes out into St. Peter’s Basilica, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum… habemus papam!” – “I announce to you a great joy… we have a pope!”

The pope then makes his first appearance before a crowd at the balcony and gives the traditional blessing of Urbi et Orbi, “to the city and the world."