Secret papal election process is anachronistic yet fascinating - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Secret papal election process is anachronistic yet fascinating

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Posted: Monday, April 18, 2005 10:09 pm | Updated: 9:02 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The defining feature of the conclave that is choosing a new pope is a secrecy rare in the modern world, and that secrecy bestows on the election both mystery and majesty.

The cardinals are locked into their corner of Vatican City; all communications devices are banned; and the staff who serve them are formally sworn to secrecy on pain of excommunication.

The secrecy may be an anachronism but it's a useful one. The 115 cardinals are strong personalities with strong views and, like the making of laws and sausages, it's best that the faithful be spared the politicking and deal-making.

However, these cardinals will surely be more restrained than the prelates who physically fought in the aisles over the election of Pius II in 1458.

Although the traditions of a papal election are old, they were not always in force. In 1179, it was decreed that only cardinals could vote on the new pope. Until then, papal transitions were more robust, often involving force and occasionally murder.

In 1274, the cardinals were first locked up, mainly to protect them from external politicking. The secret vote ballot began in 1621. And, in contrast to most institutions, the conclave has gotten more secretive over time.

This papal election has a particular resonance because the vast turnout at John Paul II's funeral is testament that the seat of St. Peter is more than just a ceremonial office, even to non-Catholics. John Paul was in the real sense of the term a world leader.

If the past is any kind of judge, the selection of his successor will be a fairly expeditious process. The elections of the last four popes took an average of two days and none in the last century has lasted longer than five days.

In one of the conclave's more compelling traditions, the paper ballots are burned after each vote, and the masses gathered outside will know the outcome from the color of the smoke issuing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel — black for an unsuccessful vote, white for the election of a new pope.

To avoid the ambiguity of gray smoke, the Vatican bells will also ring.

A senior cardinal will appear in the main window of the basilica of St. Peter and deliver the traditional announcement, "Habemus papam!" ("We have a pope!") And the new pontiff, the 266th in his line, will step forward to greet his flock.

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