The 5-Minute Briefing: The papal conclave

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The Independent Online

It all depends on how quickly two-thirds of the cardinal-electors can agree on one candidate. In the Middle Ages, when the choice of pope was a matter of great moment, a conclave could last months or even years as different factions struggled for ascendancy. The longest of modern times was that of 1831, which lasted 54 days. If the next pope has not been elected by the end of Friday, this conclave will have lasted as long as the longest of the 20th century (in 1922).

How long does the conclave last?

It all depends on how quickly two-thirds of the cardinal-electors can agree on one candidate. In the Middle Ages, when the choice of pope was a matter of great moment, a conclave could last months or even years as different factions struggled for ascendancy. The longest of modern times was that of 1831, which lasted 54 days. If the next pope has not been elected by the end of Friday, this conclave will have lasted as long as the longest of the 20th century (in 1922).

What does the word mean?

"With a key." Cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel for their voting sessions. In the old days this was to stop the cardinals from bolting before they had finished their work .Today it is to preserve secrecy. There is also a pun in the name, as the emerging pope will be the man "with the keys" of St Peter, symbol of the Church authority.

Apart from the eventual voting, what happens in the conclave?

All cardinals are sworn to deepest secrecy, not only about their voting but also about everything else in the conclave, so we have only a hazy idea of what they get up to. Mass, confession, much prayer, and doubtless many quiet, intense conversations. All the debating is supposed to have been done in the week before the conclave, but with a field as open as this one there appears much quiet persuading to be done.

How do you become a cardinal?

All cardinals are chosen and invested by the pope, usually from the ranks of bishops and archbishops, and wear red caps and robes. There are 140 from all over the world, and they are seen as the pope's closest advisers. Only those under the age of 80 (and fit enough to attend the conclave) are entitled to vote; this time there are 115 choosing the new pope.

What's the importance of the smoke?

To guarantee that no information about who has voted for whom leaks from the conclave, the used ballot papers are burned in a stove in the Sistine Chapel. When a ballot has been inconclusive, an additive is put in the stove so the smoke comes out black; after the conclusive ballot, a different additive ensures the smoke is white. But at John Paul II's election, the smoke appeared to some observers a confusing shade of grey. That's why this time they will also ring a bell.

Will the next pope be an Italian?

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, was the first non-Italian pope since Hadrian VI of Utrecht, in 1522. There are grumbles in Rome about this "Polish experiment". Yet the favourite is a German; others include an Argentine, a Nigerian, a Frenchman, a Brazilian and a Chilean.

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