It’s a ritual as rich in tradition and symbolism as the Catholic Church can muster: secret oaths, hypnotic Gregorian chants, scarlet-decked cardinals filing through the Sistine Chapel — all while the public outside in St Peter’s Square watches for white smoke to learn if it has a new pope.
Much of the ritual’s current incarnation is the work of Archbishop Piero Marini. The Vatican’s master of liturgical celebrations for two decades under Pope John Paul II, Marini organised the funeral rites for the late pontiff and the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
The conclave begins with the cardinals in their red cassocks filing into the Sistine Chapel, chanting the monophonic Litany of Saints followed by another sacred song, Veni Creator Spiritus, imploring the intervention of the saints and Holy Spirit as they take their places before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
The cardinals place their hand on the Gospel and promise to observe absolute secrecy both during and after the conclave, and to “never lend support or favour to any interference, opposition, or any other form of intervention... in the election of the Roman Pontiff”.
They have a Vatican hotel to stay in while not voting, but are forbidden from having any contact with the outside world: no phones, no newspapers, no tweeting.
Once the final oath is taken, the master of liturgical ceremonies gives the order “Extra omnes” (everyone out) and all those not taking part in the conclave leave.
An elderly cardinal, over age 80 and thus ineligible to participate, remains and reads a meditation about the qualities a pope should have and the challenges facing the church, after which he and the master of ceremonies leave the cardinals to begin voting.
Outside, they wait for the white smoke too.
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