All About Papal Conclaves

In a matter of days cardinals will enter the famous Sistine Chapel to once again elect a new pope. Curious about the timeless rituals and customs of papal conclaves, we sat down with our associate publisher Glenn Byer to learn more about these historical gatherings.

What is the conclave?

At its base it is an election.

Who is doing the electing?

In the earlier centuries of the Church there were other groups involved in the election, but since 1059 it has been cardinals only. Whenever someone is named a cardinal they are assigned to a church in Rome, and so they are, in a sense, the senior clergy of Rome.

What are they electing?

As the senior clergy of Rome, it is no surprise that they are electing the Bishop of Rome. After all, Rome, like any other diocese, needs a bishop. This is the first of the pope’s titles, and all the others flow from this fact.

But he is the pope, right?

Yes, the fact that the Bishop of Rome is also Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God follows from this first and basic reality.

Are they really locked up?

Well kind of, they are confined into two areas and bussed from one to the other. They work in the Sistine Chapel and eat and sleep in a separate residence area. Usually they may not leave, but if they must for health reasons then they can rejoin the election later.

This sounds medieval! Is it?

Since about the 14th century this process has been under lock and key. In the past, the quality of the meals would decrease as the voting went on to encourage a decision. The conclave once took so long that Romans, who take this event personally (it is their Bishop after all), tore the roof off of the hall so that the weather might encourage them.

What’s with the smoke?

The smoke signals the decision of the conclave. This came about because, for security reasons, they were burning the ballots, and since they were under lock and key they needed a way to signal when they were done deliberating. White smoke indicates a new pope has been chosen, and black smoke indicates a decision has not yet been made. Historically, they would use wet straw for black smoke and dry straw for white, but often it was not easy to tell the difference. Now chemicals are added, and the bells of St. Peter’s are also used to signal when our new pope is chosen. Then the cardinals all come out and announce, “We have a pope.” And so we will.

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