On Tuesday morning, March 12, at 10 a.m., a Mass pro eligendo Romano Pontifice is celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the last act of the cardinals’ General Congregations (pre-conclave meetings) and the first act of the Conclave which opens this afternoon. The Dean of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, presides over this Mass. All the cardinals are present, even those who, like Sodano, are over 80 and thus ineligible to take part in the Conclave. In his homily, the cardinal repeatedly speaks of the “mission of mercy” to which the Church is called and which, therefore, the new Pope will be called to carry out. Probably no one has adverted to the fact that among the cardinals present, one has mercy as the theme of his personal motto: Miserando atque eligendo. This is the cardinal of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
The Congregations are true fraternal meetings in which vital information is exchanged. There are 162 five-minute reports on the Church all over the world, on the Holy See, on the need for the new evangelization, on charity, and on other topics. Every day for a couple of hours, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, the director of the Holy See’s Press Office, tells reporters what he can about the meetings. The cardinals are sworn to secrecy about their work, but more than one fact slips out to the journalists. Fr. Lombardi, however, is most respectful of his oath.
He explains to reporters that “Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, as chairman of the cardinals’ IOR Supervisory Commission, gave a brief report about the Institute itself, its service and the process of integrating the Vatican’s institutions into the international economic control system. This completes the information on the Holy See’s economic situation.” This is so because the economic situation had already been discussed by the three cardinals who head the economic departments of the Holy See, following the practice decided on in Universi Dominici Gregis, the Apostolic Constitution promulgated by John Paul II in 1996 and revised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and 2013.
The meetings follow one another day after day. The American cardinals decide to hold a briefing with the U.S. press each day after Fr. Lombardi holds his daily press conference, but this plan is abandoned after a little too much “information from within” begins to appear in the Italian press.
This is a disappointment for many, but Fr. Lombardi explains: “The Congregations are not synods or conferences on which we strive to give the best possible information, but a means of joint reflection in order to decide the election of the Roman Pontiff. The tradition… is confidentiality to protect the freedom of thought of each of the members of the College of Cardinals who must make such an important decision. I’m not surprised, therefore, that along this journey there are, in the beginning, moments of communication, and that afterwards, in keeping with the rest of the College, they determine whether and how to communicate.”
And while the cardinals privately listen and decide, journalists do receive information about many details of the preparations for the Conclave, starting with the preparation of the Sistine Chapel.
Hammers, saws, nails, glue, wooden beams, drapes: all this and much more comes together to create the perfect setting for the 115 cardinal voters and their assistants. On Saturday morning, March 9, the Sistine Chapel is a work in progress as it is prepared as the site for electing the new Pope. Today the journalists and photographers are much less focused in Michelangelo’s frescoes than they are on the two ugly stoves being installed. In these stoves the cardinals’ ballots will be burned after each vote. One of them is very old: round, grey cast iron, sporting some seals from the last time it was used. Its belly has some dates inscribed on it, dates ranging from March 1939 to April 2005. These are the dates of conclaves in which the stove was used, from the election of Pius XII until today. Some anonymous hand in the Vatican has recorded these dates redolent of so much history. In addition to this historical stove there is another, an even uglier modern stove, square, with an electronic control unit on top. This stove has been in use since 2005. It serves to ensure that the smoke emanating from the chimney is clear, sharp, and easily defined—white or black, not gray as was the smoke announcing the election of Albino Luciani. The stoves are connected by a long polished copper tube, supported by unattractive steel pipes. One of these pipes reaches all the way up to a window and outside, emerging as the fabled chimney. The chimney is in place by 11:00 am Saturday morning, photographed by every tourist in the square.
For a few days, the two stoves are constantly photographed like movie stars. Everyone wants to have his photograph taken next to them.
Behind the imposing barricade there are tables and chairs, wood and velvet, all destined to create what since the time of Paul VI is the new setting for the election of a new Pope. No longer is there a row of small thrones with canopies set against the wall, but instead there is simply a long desk. The canopies of bygone times were a means to indicate the dignity of the Pope upon his election, as they were all lowered except the canopy of the one elected. This is an illustrative practice, but at the same time an impractical one and definitely not suited to modern times.
The workers are in a hurry. Everything must be finished by Tuesday afternoon. On, Monday, the “conclavists,” those who will be serving the Conclave as cooks, doctors, etc., take the solemn oath of secrecy.Tuesday is an intense day for the cardinals. At 7:00 am, the doors to the Domus Sanctae Marthae open to allow the cardinals to move in. Their rooms have been assigned to them at random. At 10:00 the Mass pro eligendo Romano Pontifice takes place in St. Peter’s. At 3:45 pm, the cardinals meet in the Pauline Chapel, and from there they move in solemn procession to the Sistine Chapel, where each one swears to keep the details of the election secret. (To tell the truth, the oath has often been disregarded, as can be seen by the number of stories which have circulated regarding the last Conclave.) After the collective oath, each cardinal personally swears to it with his hand on the Gospel. At this point, the liturgical master of ceremonies pronounces the words, “Extra omnes” (“All out”). All those not eligible to remain in the Conclave must exit. The master of ceremonies with his assistants remain long enough to hear the meditation preached by Cardinal Prosper Grech, at the end of which they leave the Chapel together. The doors are closed and sealed, and the Swiss Guards take their positions before the heavy oak door to the Sala Regia. Even the side doors are closed, and the entire area of the Conclave is sealed and inaccessible to external communications.
The vote begins. On ballot cards preprinted with a precise formula, each cardinal writes his choice and inserts the card into one of the ballot boxes placed on the altar. The votes are counted and the results announced. A prayer time follows, and a second vote; then the ballots from the two votes are burned.
The next day begins with 6:30 am breakfast in the Domus, followed by Mass in the Pauline Chapel and then further voting. At about noon smoke can be expected, unless the Pope is elected before the second ballot in the morning or in the evening. Lunch is at 1 pm, and at 4 pm the cardinals return to the Sistine Chapel for two more rounds of voting, and if again no one is elected, the smoke rises again at 7 pm. Dinner is at 8.
If the Pope is elected, Cardinal Re asks him in Latin: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” If the answer is yes, the conclave is officially ended. The second question is, “By what name will you be called?” At this point, the ballots are burned, and the white smoke informs the world that the Chair of Peter is once again occupied. The new Pope goes to the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel, to the “Room of Tears” as some call it: a room in which three white cassocks of different sizes are in readiness. After dressing himself in his new robes, the Pope returns and sits on the chair in the Sistine Chapel. All pray, and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew or John is read. Then comes the act of homage and obedience by the cardinals, and finally the singing of the Te Deum. Those who can first greet the new Pope are the Deputy Secretary of State, the Secretary for Relations with States, the Prefect of the Papal Household, and a few others including the Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
At this point, everything is ready for the announcement from the central balcony of the basilica. The doors to the balcony are opened, and the new Pope emerges, acclaimed with applause and shouts of joy from the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. From here, a new journey begins for the Pope.