Conclave's smoke signals will be only clue to secret ballot

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The Independent Online

The Catholic church is as proud of its ancient ceremonies as the British Parliament or Royal Family, and although some fall by the wayside when the needs of the modern world assert themselves, many others remain intact.

It is unlikely (we will never know for sure) that the Camerlengo (or chamberlain), Cardinal Leonardo Martinez Somalo, tapped the Pope three time on the head with a silver hammer and called out his baptismal name to ascertain that he was truly dead; but it is much more likely he followed tradition in using the hammer to destroy the Pope's ring and seal of office, to thwart possible souvenir-hunters or worse.

It is also unlikely (again, we may never know) that the next pope will be required to sit on a special chair, like a commode, while the Camerlengo gropes to feel his testicles, to be 100 per cent sure they have not elected a woman by mistake.

But the Conclave at which the pope is elected follows in spirit the Conclaves of old. The word means "with keys", and is a Latin pun: they meet to find the next man to carry "the keys of St Peter"; and while they are doing it they will be locked in.

Before, they were literally imprisoned, to stop them being nobbled by the powerful political interests who demanded a pope after their own hearts, and to keep their minds on the job.

Yet at the first Conclave, despite being locked in Rome's ancient Septizonium Palace by the city's civil ruler, Senator Matteo Orsini, and menaced by his armed guards to deter them from escape, they were unable to agree for weeks. They finally plumped for the elderly Celestine IV, who died a couple of weeks later, after the cardinals had fled Rome, to avoid a repeat of the experience.

Today's cardinals will commute between the Sistine Chapel, where the praying, voting and burning of ballot papers happen, and a comfortable hospice a short walk away. Their main deprivation will be phones and other means of communicating with the outside world. When the white smoke from burnt ballot papers indicating a pope has been chosen billows out above the piazza, they will be able to switch on their mobiles again.

It will be the first Conclave when cardinals have been so lucky. Before, they slept on cots in the palace. And in the early days they risked starvation. To encourage them, Pope Gregory X in the 13th century decreed that if they failed to decide in three days, their two-course meals would be cut to one. After five more days, they would be on bread, water and wine until a new pope emerged.

One Conclave in Viterbo, north of Rome, dragged on for nearly three years. Finally, the townspeople got so fed up they stormed the palace and ripped the roof off.