L'Osservatore Romano, ho / AP
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | 2 a.m.
VATICAN CITY — It begins with prayers chanted in an ancient language and ends with a tiny figure on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica unveiled as the supreme pontiff of more than 1 billion Catholics. The conclave to elect a pope, which started Tuesday, unfolds with elaborate ritual, deep secrecy and politicking that would warm the heart of a machine politician.
While carried out in the trappings of past centuries, “In reality, the elections are a political fact,” said Paolo Francia, author of “The Conclave.”
The voting is minutely scripted. Rectangular paper ballots are counted, collected, pierced with a needle and burned. Exactly four rounds of voting are permitted each day. The winner’s name is intoned in Latin.
It is a process dating back centuries, with a rich history of chicanery — like the bought election of Julius II in 1503 and the undermining of a leading contender, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, in 1978, thanks to the leaking of an embargoed interview he gave.
There are no formal nominees, and technically, each cardinal enters the conclave as a possible pope. The next pope must garner two-thirds of the votes, or 77 of 115 in this case. In practice, a few names always emerge as favorites beforehand, although the principal truism is, “Go in a pope, come out a cardinal.”
The first ballot Tuesday served effectively as a primary. It identifies the cardinals to whom votes can flow in succeeding rounds — two every morning, two every afternoon.
“I expect the first vote is going to be quite scattered around,” said Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa, given “the wider field of candidates with the potential” to become pope.
While the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the guiding light behind a pope’s selection, the cardinals are known to negotiate between the ritualistic voting rounds over dinner and coffee, although the constitution governing papal transitions forbids them to make deals.
The conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 as Benedict XVI lends some insight into how the voting progresses.
In 2005, Ratzinger jumped out to a quick lead with 47 votes, according to the diary of an unnamed cardinal, as reported by an Italian state television journalist, Lucio Brunelli, in the journal Limes later that year. While never verified, the outline of Brunelli’s version was reflected in other accounts.
The diarist said Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, received 10 votes; Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan who was considered a less conservative choice, received nine; and four others held several votes. Many Vatican experts said that Martini was not necessarily considered a real option, but a gathering point for anti-Ratzinger votes.
“We spoke at the table, exchanging impressions on the first vote that came to nothing,” Brunelli quoted the unnamed cardinal as writing. “More discussions, with maximum discretion, happened after dinner in the rooms. Small groups, two or three people.”
In the second round, Ratzinger’s count rose to 65 and Bergoglio’s to 35, the diarist said, according to Brunelli. Ratzinger appeared to have picked up the six votes of Cardinal Camillo Ruini and 12 scattered votes. Martini’s votes apparently went to Bergoglio.
Round 3: Ratzinger, 72; Bergoglio, 40. At this point, Bergoglio needed only four votes to exceed one-third of the total, enough to block a Ratzinger papacy.
“Great worry among the prelates who hope for the election of Ratzinger; contacts grow thicker,” Brunelli reported the diarist as writing.
But on the fourth round, at least 12 went to Ratzinger, giving him 84 and the papacy.
In an effort to limit the release of inside information, the extras to the drama are sworn to secrecy, on pain of excommunication. The secretary of the College of Cardinals, priests for cardinal confessions, doctors, nurses, elevator operators, security officers, cleaning and meal crews, and minibus drivers who all serve the cardinals — all took the oath Monday in the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace. They numbered about 90.
Jamming devices prevent cellphone service, part of the complete deprivation of contact with the outside world, a vestige of the need to protect conclaves from the influence of outside forces, like an emperor or king. Technicians have swept the chapel for bugs or video devices.
Fear of royal interference is no longer an issue, said Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a historian of the papacy, “but you still have pressure of public opinion and of the press.”
When they arrived in the chapel, the cardinals swore an oath to follow the constitution on papal elections and to keep secrecy. For the first time, television cameras caught that scene.
Then, the master of papal liturgical celebrations gave the order “Extra omnes” — “Everyone out” — and almost all but the cardinals leave. The master of celebrations waits while a prelate delivers a meditation, and then the two leave the cardinals to their deliberations.
The cardinals have in front of them a list of their names and several ballots, rectangular pieces of paper with the words “Eligo in Summum Pontificem” — “I elect as Supreme Pontiff.” Each cardinal must write the name of his candidate in clear but disguised handwriting.
The voter walks to the front of the chapel, holds it up in the air and says the words, “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.” Above him, in all its glory, is Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.”
“That’s one of the most solemn motives,” Napier said of the oath. “It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”
Immediately after the pope is elected, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the senior cardinal at the conclave, will approach him and say the words: “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” If the answer is yes, he will ask what name the new pope wants to adopt.
After prayers and a reading of the Gospel, the cardinals individually approach their new pontiff and “make an act of homage and obedience,” according to the constitution. The new pope heads to the balcony of St. Peter’s, stopping in the Pauline Chapel by himself for a prayer.
“Obviously, this part is not televised,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said Monday.
The crowd in St. Peter’s Square will then hear the proclamation “habemus papam” — “We have a pope” — and the new man will appear, giving his first blessing as pope.