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No public stages, no extra flags, no slogans… You won’t find anything like that in Rome before the conclave of cardinals who will choose a successor to Benedict XVI from among their number.
Cardinals do not campaign to become pope. Even when names are floated in public of men seen as having the right stuff, they themselves keep quiet. It’s one of the ways that a papal election is unlike any other. Secrecy reigns.
The other rules include an age limit. To be able to vote; a cardinal must be younger than 80 at the time the papal throne was vacated. Two of the 115 cardinals eligible to participate in this conclave had their 80th birthdays just after Benedict resigned on February 28th.
The conclave will take place in the Sistine Chapel, with the doors locked. In principle, it should take only a few days for a new pope to be elected. The longest conclave of the last century went on for five days in 1922, then Pius XI became Bishop of Rome. It only took two days for the cardinals to choose Benedict in 2005.
On the first day of the conclave, the cardinals vote only once. On the following days, the men in red may vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon, until two thirds of the participants concur on a new head of the Church.
The counted ballots are burned in an iron stove, whose chimney will channel the smoke up into the outside world. Black smoke is a signal that the vote was inconclusive; white smoke means the job’s been filled.
Not a word of what is discussed in the chapel is supposed to exfiltrate. Rule-breakers risk excommunication. The cardinals are lodged in seclusion at the Santa Marta Residence, the Vatican City’s hotel, 700 metres from the work place.
They are pretty much left to their imaginations, as they don’t get television, radio, newspapers, telephone or Internet during the conclave.
When the white smoke comes out – and sometimes the colour is confusing – the senior cardinal deacon calls out over St. Peter’s Square: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam! which means: ‘we have a pope’.