Neil McNicholas: A time of cardinal numbers and smoke signals

THE process to elect the next pope is about to get under way. Understandably, there is a fascination, especially amongst the media, to know what that process involves and every pundit and spokesperson the media can find is being asked what type of person the next pope should be and what agenda he should have. As difficult as it is for many people outside of the Catholic Church to understand, and not a few inside the Church too, there is no satisfactory answer to those questions – it doesn’t work like that.


Let’s begin with the word conclave itself. John L Allen, in his book Conclave, says: “A conclave is an event surrounded by legend, one that uniquely blends theatre with mystery, and politics with prayer.” It means “with a key” – in other words it is a process which takes place in secret, quite literally under lock and key.

All of the cardinals eligible to take part in the conclave – some 115 under the age of 80 if they all attend – are locked inside the Sistine Chapel during the day and are bound by absolute secrecy when they leave for their overnight accommodation in the Casa Santa Marta, a purpose-built hotel inside the Vatican.

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The use of any device to record the business of the conclave – whether in writing or electronically – is forbidden and so there is not even a record of what goes on. In the sceptical world in which we live, such a concept of absolute secrecy (before God) can be a difficult one for people to understand and accept.

The rules governing the conclave allow for the general congregation of all of the cardinals who have travelled to Rome (including those over the age of 80) to be addressed by an invited cleric on what might be broadly called “the state of the Church”. This will establish the background against which the decision-making process will take place, but the process itself unfolds within the secrecy of the conclave, which begins with a special Mass to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And this is where it becomes difficult to satisfactorily answer all the usual questions that are asked about the conclave.

The process – at least in theory but hopefully also in reality – is under the direction of the Holy Spirit and it’s difficult to explain exactly what that means and how it works to the satisfaction of the media and any other enquirers who may only be able to think in terms of concrete, rather than theological, realities. Everyone wants to know who the likely candidates – ‘the runners and riders’ – may be, but no one really knows.

The media will then typically ask what the future direction of the Church might be, to see whether that might bring any names to the surface. We can speculate all day long on that particular answer, but we will still be none-the-wiser as to the cardinals’ eventual decision just as, while we know how in general a conclave is conducted, we don’t know (and won’t ever know) exactly what will be going on in this particular gathering.

And to prevent the media from influencing the process, the “lock and key” ensures the cardinals are appropriately isolated. Precisely how their decision is reached depends on the outcome of a series of ballots – one on the first day and then two in the morning and two in the afternoon of each day thereafter.

Each cardinal’s decision will be arrived at prayerfully and reflectively – another concept that is difficult to explain to the media. Each writes the name of the candidate of their choice on a ballot paper which is then placed in a large chalice. The total number of papers is counted (unopened) to ensure that everyone has voted and then the names that have been voted for are written down. A two-thirds majority is required for a candidate to be elected. The ballot papers are burned traditionally with wet straw but now with a more definitive chemical to produce black smoke from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel if no candidate has been elected, or white smoke to indicate that a new pope has been chosen.

What isn’t generally known is that, in theory, any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason and is not a heretic could be chosen as pope – which would leave the bookmakers floundering a little to come up with odds. In actuality, the choice is made by the cardinals from within their own number – which shortens the odds considerably. So twice a day the world will soon be watching that little chimney above the Sistine, to see who the Holy Spirit has decided will next fill the sandals of St Peter.