‘Habemus Who?’ A Daunting Task at the Papal Conclave

Many of the cardinals assembled to vote for a new pope are still learning each other’s names, reports Barbie Latza Nadeau from Vatican City.

VATICAN CITY—The copper flue that rises from two stoves on the floor is in one of the most artful places in the world, but it is hardly a work of art. Pieces of pipe cobbled together with awkward bends are attached to scaffolding that reaches a crude hole in an upper wall just under Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece ceiling. Down below the two stoves sit on a piece of particleboard floor attached to the ornate marble floor with what looks a lot like gaffer tape. The older stove, where the ballots will be burned, was first used in 1939 to elect Pope Pius XII in just three votes. Small carvings along the top of the stove mark the date and number of votes for each conclave in which it was used to elect a pontiff. The last markings are from 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI was chosen in four votes. The newer stove beside it is a modern square monstrosity that looks like something you’d find hidden away in the basement of a house. It was introduced in 2005, when it was clear the new paper used for the ballots just didn’t produce enough smoke to send a clear signal out into St. Peter’s square—at least not strong enough for the world’s television cameras to capture it in high-definition. The newer stove augments the ballot smoke, which is always black unless a chemical cartridge is added to turn it white. It seems even something as traditional as the conclave can be improved by modern technology.

On Tuesday afternoon, the 115 members of the College of Cardinals will file into the sacred chapel to begin the secretive balloting that will produce a new leader for the billion members of the Roman Catholic Church. The cardinals in ceremonial vestments will sit at long tables covered in red and white linen cloths that have been hand-sewn and attached to the wood by seamstresses especially for the occasion. Above them will be Michelangelo’s ceiling, depicting nine scenes from the Book of Genesis that might serve as divine inspiration. If that doesn’t work, there is always his haunting depiction of the Last Judgment, behind the altar to their right, in which Christ is portrayed separating the blessed from the damned. Not altogether different from their own daunting task.

To choose their leader, two thirds of the cardinals must agree, meaning it will take 77 votes to elect a winner. The pope may be chosen from within the voting body or, less likely, from the group of retired cardinals who are over the age of 80 and too old to vote. The first vote will take place Tuesday evening, and those ballots will be burned around 7 p.m. local time. If no majority is reached, there will then be four votes a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. The paper ballots will be burned only after the second and fourth votes—unless there is a winner. And, since everything is secretive in Vatican City, no one will know for sure whether a pope has been elected until the white smoke comes out of the chimney. Jamming devices are already in place and cardinals are not allowed to tweet, tumble, or in any way communicate with the outside world during the voting process; any who did would risk severe punishment that could even include excommunication. All those assisting with the services are also under a strict oath of secrecy, from the Swiss Guards who stand at the Sistine Chapel door to the coffee-break attendants who might hear chatter in the halls.

What that means is that waiting for the smoke is an exercise in patience.

Curious followers should be in St. Peter’s Square just before noon and again before 7 p.m. for the scheduled smoke. Devout pilgrims and the more than 5,000 journalists accredited to cover the conclave should also be there around 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.—just in case. The longer the conclave lasts, the larger the crowds will be in the square at each burning. But a dismal weather forecast in Rome next week may dampen the spirits of some—and make the smoke signals harder to read.

When the smoke wafts out after sunset, the chimney will be lit with a spotlight. There won’t be an official confirmation from the Vatican press office about the color of the smoke, Father Federico Lombardi told journalists on Saturday, adamantly warning he wouldn’t be sending any text messages to tip anyone off. Instead the press must “live the moment and see for themselves,” he said, adding that the only real confirmation will come when the bells of St. Peter’s basilica chime. In 2005 the smoke was more of a light gray color than obvious white, and there were long moments of confusion. During that conclave, hundreds of Romans scrambled to the square upon hearing the smoke was white, just as Romans have done for centuries to see firsthand who won the papal seat.

After the bells chime, Lombardi says it will take about 45 minutes for the pope to take his oath, be fitted with his new vestments and make his way to the balcony overlooking the square. During that time he will also have to choose a name. Lombardi said it was unlikely that the cardinals were going into the conclave with a favorite name in mind, though, he admitted “those at risk of being elected may be giving it more thought.” Gammarelli tailors, the official pontifical outfitter, have already prepared three sizes of vestments, which are waiting in a side room between the Sistine Chapel and basilica balcony, and will make the final adjustments to the hem and sleeves as the pope prepares to step out to greet the world. The papal fisherman’s ring is also ready, just awaiting the new pope’s name to be engraved around the seal.

Unlike in 2005, when it was no great surprise that Joseph Ratzinger was elected to become Benedict XVI, there is no clear frontrunner going into this conclave, say experts like National Catholic Reporter’s Father Thomas Reese, a blogging journo-priest who says that the lack of clear choice going in could spell a surprise one. He points to the fact that one fifth of the College of Cardinals have had their red caps for only a year, which means that many who are not Roman Curia insiders are still learning each other’s names.

“While the curial cardinals and the more senior cardinals may know most of the cardinals, the newer cardinals are still matching faces to bios,” he blogged this week. “The cardinals from outside Rome also know little about each other.”

The scene was similar in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla from Poland was elected on the eight ballot as a dark-horse candidate. That conclave followed the short-lived papacy of John Paul I, who died after just 33 days as pope. When Wojtyla’s name was read, many in St. Peter’s Square had no idea who he was. This conclave could be just as exciting when the white smoke pours out of the chimney and the bells toll and habemus papam is followed by a resounding “Habemus who?”