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Sistine Vows Bind Cardinals Voting Under Michelangelo Frescoes

February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI arrives to greet the faithful after mass in St. Peter's Basilica to mark the 900th anniversary of the Order of the Knights of Malta at the Vatican. Photographer: Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

Electing a successor to Benedict XVI will involve a centuries-old procedure steeped in secrecy that will offer few signals about the identity of the 266th pope until white smoke wafts over St. Peter’s Square.

Only the 117 of the 210 members of College of Cardinals under the age of 80 have the right to vote in the conclave, which will assemble in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s after Benedict’s resignation on Feb. 28. Yesterday the Vatican said it wants to elect a new pope by Easter, which falls on March 31.

The cardinals will be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel, adorned with Michelangelo’s famed frescoes, and barred from contact with the outside world. Disobeying the election’s secrecy rules may result in excommunication. The new pope will be the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and inherit a church divided over such issues as abortion, contraception and allowing women a bigger role in the church.

The pontiff said yesterday he no longer has the strength to lead the Church after serving almost eight years as successor to John Paul II. He will be 86 in April and is the first pope to step down since Gregory XII in 1415.

The election may reopen rifts within the Church as pressure builds to name a pope from the developing world where Catholicism is growing faster than in Europe and the U.S. Openly campaigning for the position has been forbidden since the sixth century and Benedict won’t play any role in the conclave to choose his successor, the Vatican said yesterday.

Listening Devices

On the first morning, the voting cardinals hold a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and in the afternoon gather in their formal dress in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, then move to the Sistine Chapel, which is swept for any electronic listening devices. The chapel is locked and sealed, the senior cardinal administers an oath of secrecy and the election begins.

One ballot may be conducted on the first day. If no candidate secures the necessary two thirds of the vote, the balloting continues the next day, with as many as four votes, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

Benedict was elected after two days and four ballots in April 19, 17 days after the death of John Paul II.

Of the 117 voters, there will be 61 Europeans, 19 Latin Americans, 14 North Americans, 11 Africans, 11 Asians and 1 Australian, the Vatican said yesterday. The exact number may vary depending on the date that the conclave opens. For example, Cardinal Walter Kasper will turn 80 on 5 March.

Sixty-seven of the electors were created by Benedict XVI and the remaining 50 by John Paul II.

Lengthy Vote

The voting process is a lengthy one. The electors write their votes on rectangular cards. The cardinals then cast their vote one at a time, with each approaching the altar displaying his folded ballot. He then kneels in prayer before declaring, “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.”

At the end of the voting, the scrutineers, cardinals designated daily to conduct the balloting, collect the votes. The names are read aloud and attached to a needle and thread and then tied at the ends. If the majority isn’t reached, another vote is held.

The ballots are burned before the electors leave the chapel, giving the outside world a rare clue to the conclave’s progress. If no candidate is selected, a chemical is added to produce black smoke that drifts out over St. Peter’s square, signalling the balloting will continue. The famed white smoke is released when a new pope is selected.

Smooth Conclave

Recent conclaves have been smooth. The last one to last more than five days was in 1831, when it took fifty-four days to select the Pope Gregory VI.

Once a new pope is elected, he is asked if he accepts the position and then is asked what name he would like to use.

The new pontiff is asked not to refuse his position and “to submit humbly to the design of the divine will.” Benedict said his election felt like a “guillotine” falling on his neck.

The dean of the college of cardinals will then present the new pope to the world, shouting in Latin from a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, “Habemus Papam!” -- We have a pope! -- and Benedict’s successor will make his first appearance on the world stage to bless the crowd.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Craig Stirling at;

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