VATICAN CITY — When the Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals decided this week to halt daily press briefings by American cardinals, they invoked a policy that has existed for centuries: The election of a pope is secret.
While the process and rituals the cardinals follow are spelled out in public church documents, carrying out the election is done behind locked doors and a cloak of technology to prevent communication with anyone not part of the proceedings.
"They don’t want any outside influence on the vote. That is the reason for the secrecy and isolation," said Rev. Robert J. Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University. "When you go back in history, there were many occasions where governments put pressure on the conclaves" to elect or not to elect a particular person to lead the church.
Beginning with this past week's general congregation meetings among the cardinals and extending to the voting procedure that begins Tuesday, the cardinals are following exact rules and rituals that date back centuries to elect the new leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world.
And when the new pope accepts his appointment, he will be taking over a church facing many challenges, from clergy sex abuse scandals and mismanagement within the Vatican to explosive growth in the developing world and empty cathedrals in the church's historic homebase of Europe.
The informal process of electing a new pope began when Pope Benedict XVI shocked the church by announcing his retirement — the first pontiff to step down, rather than dying in office, in 600 years — on Feb. 11.
Since then the cardinals, known as the princes of the church, who are appointed by the pope and among whom a successor will be elected, have been talking among themselves about possible candidates and pressing issues facing the church.
"It’s going on now over the phone and in nice Roman restaurants," Wister said.
While it is considered bad form to campaign, a more discreet process takes place in which cardinals informally talk among themselves and listen carefully to those they are sizing up as a possible successor. A more formal venue where cardinals air their views about the state of the church are the general congregation meetings, which began this week and where the date of the conclave — or actual election — will be decided.
Despite efforts to silence cardinals before the conclave, reported leaks to the press about who is saying what during the general congregation gatherings continue. But the most serious security measures won't be employed until the 115 cardinals who will choose the new pope are housed during the election process.
Wister described the Casa Santa Marta as akin to a mid-level Marriott hotel where the Vatican Curia, or administration, lives. But during the conclave, the cardinal electors move in. Communication jamming devices prevent mobile or Internet service to or from the building. The cardinals, who have taken a vow of secrecy, are not to speak to each other.
An anonymous cardinal's diary detailing the 2005 conclave described his surprise at the locked-down living conditions. "In the afternoon I took over my room at the Casa Santa Marta. I put down my bags and tried to open the blinds because the room was dark. I wasn't able to. One of my fellow brothers asked a nun working there, thinking it was a technical problem. She explained they were sealed. Closure of the conclave ... "
The cardinals can walk or ride a bus to the Sistine Chapel, where voting takes place, but they are escorted along a path lined with guards.
Wister said the word "conclave" is Latin for "locked up in a room," and its Catholic origins are in the papal elections of the 13th century, when one election dragged on for two years. The townspeople of Viterbo, a village outside of Rome, got tired of feeding and housing the churchmen, so they locked the cardinals in the episcopal palace, feeding them just bread and water, and a decision was made promptly.
The tradition of locking up the cardinals has continued, although the motive has changed. Conclaves now usually last a day or two, during which a strict voting ritual is observed.
The voting process
Following a special mass calling on the Holy Spirit to guide the decision, the cardinal electors, who must be younger than 80 years of age, file into the Sistine Chapel, where another sophisticated communcation jamming system has been installed, Wister said.
Each cardinal is given a pre-printed ballot on which he writes the name of his preference for pope. "And one by one they walk up and take an oath that they are voting for the man they consider the most suitable candidate without pressure, then the ballot is placed in (an) urn," Wister said.
After all the ballots have been cast, two cardinals who have been appointed as "scrutineers" over the election read each ballot aloud, while the electors keep their own personal scorecards.
If no one receives at least two-thirds of the vote, then another round of balloting takes place. Wister said as many as four rounds of voting can take place in one day.
After each round, the ballots are burned in a stove, which is stocked with pellets to assure the smoke snaking out of the chapel's chimney is either black (meaning no decision) or white (a pope has been elected).
"Given these cardinals are not very good at domestic chores, they have had problems with the stove. In the last conclave the damper didn't work and smoke filled the chapel," Wister said. "As solemn and important as (the conclave) is, it has its funny sides, too."
'A great joy'
Technically, any male in good standing can be elected to the position of pope — the official Bishop of Rome and successor of the ancient apostle Peter, the head of the church. But, Wister said, the last time a noncardinal was elected was in 1378 with the controversial Urban VI, whose papacy led to a schism in the church.
When a cardinal receives two-thirds of the vote, he is formally asked to accept and to declare what name he will be known by. The results are then notarized and sealed. The new pope is vested with a white cassock and red cape, and each cardinal individually promises obedience. The ballots are burned with pellets producing white smoke and the bell of St. Peter's rings.
The final event of the papal election occurs when the senior cardinal deacon declares in Latin, “I announce to you a great joy: We have a pope!” and the pope appears on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's square.
Speculation about who is likely to be elected pope has ranged from a cardinal from the growing regions of Africa and Latin America to one who can revive the church in Europe. Regardless of who he is or where he hails from, the new leader of the world's 1.2 billon Catholics will be taking on a burden that his predecessor said he was too old to manage.
For U.S. Catholics, the major and most immediate issue for the church to address is that of the sex abuse cases involving clergy. A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 34 percent of Catholics said the sex abuse scandal was the most pressing problem facing the church. A distant second was the church's lack of credibility, with 9 percent saying restoring public trust was the most important issue to address.
The same survey found that 27 percent said the Catholic Church's charitable works are its most important contribution to society, while 11 percent said providing a moral compass and values is the most important contribution.
Gathering the opinions of lay members around the world, the Associated Press reported a tension among those of the rank-and-file who want a leader who will bring the church into the 21st century and those who want to continue Benedict's conservative, traditional approach.
"What most agreed on, however," the AP reported, "was the church is in dire need of a comeback."