With the process to elect a new pope now underway, here are some facts to beef up your knowledge about one of the most important and intriguing institutions in the Church: the conclave.
1. The first conclave was held in 1276.
2. The smallest conclave was also one of the longest. Starting in mid-1277, just seven cardinals showed up for a conclave: four Italians and three Frenchmen. The ensuing deadlock lasted six months and ended only when a French prelate died. (Technically this may not have been a conclave, since the pope who died before it suspended formal conclave rules. However, historian Warren Carroll refers to it as a conclave. See below for more on the conclave suspension.)
3. The longest conclave lasted more than two years, an estimated 851 days, if you count from the beginning to the end of the Council of Constance which served as a special conclave of sorts. However, not all historians agree on this point. If you don’t count the council, the longest official conclave was 28 months, between May 1, 1314 and August 7, 1316. After that, the next longest was 183 days in 1740.
4. Many mainstream news outlets are erroneously reporting that the longest and the first conclave was in 1271 when a nearly three-year standstill at the Italian town of Viterbo so frustrated town officials that they locked the cardinals in a palace, hence the original of the word conclave, derived from the Latin phrase meaning with key. But the conclave as a formal institution was established in response to this fiasco, its name inspired by the solution that eventually had presented itself. The formal establishment was in 1274, at the Second Council of Lyons by Pope Gregory X.
5. Formal conclave rules were suspended months after the first one was held, by Pope John XX. For nearly two decades popes were elected without strictly following conclave procedures until Celestine V restored the institution in 1294.
6. According to one tally, there have been 73 conclaves since 1294, not counting the one happening now.
7. Not all conclaves have been in Rome or Italy. Outside of Rome, other Italian cities have hosted conclaves, including Venice, Perugia, and Naples. Six conclaves have been in France and one was in Constance, Germany in 1417.
8. The conclave in Constance is also the last one in which non-cardinals participated.
9. Originally cardinals slept in a communal room. That later changed to cells. Today cardinals have rooms assigned to them by lot in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a guest house in Vatican City.
10. Sfumata is the technical, Latin word for the smoke that signals the outcome of balloting.
11. How the smoke is colored black or white remains something of a mystery, although it is believed special chemicals are used in the process.
12. Any male Catholic, hypothetically speaking, could be elected Pope. While this seems extremely unlikely, it has happened. Pope Gregory X was neither a bishop nor a priest when he was chosen. Under the current rules, however, anyone elected pope who is not already a bishop must be immediately ordained to the episcopate.
13. All the popes elected since 1389, however, have been cardinals.
14. The doorkeeper: Every detail of the conclave is highly scripted. The current governing document, Universi Dominici Gregis, even specifies who is to shut the door to the Sistine Chapel once voting begins: the junior Cardinal Deacon.
15. Special offices for cardinals in the conclave: Before voting commences, cardinals are selected by lot to three offices—the Scrutineers, the Infirmarii, and the Revisers. There are three persons chosen for each office.
16. Scrutineers count the ballots.
17. Infirmarii collect ballots from any cardinals who happen to fall ill during the conclave and remain in their quarters.
18. Revisers double check the work of the Scrutineers.
19. Two medical doctors must be available to the cardinals participating in the conclave. They too must take an oath to keep secret anything they hear about goings-on within the Sistine Chapel.
20. Ballot paper specifications. Conclave rules require the following of the ballot paper: it has to be rectangular, capable of being folded in two, and, on the upper half bear the words Eligo in Summum Pontificem, Latin for, “I elect as Supreme Pontiff.”
21. Handwriting guidelines: Cardinals must write down the name of their choice “legibly” but they must also disguise their handwriting so that it is not clearly recognizable as their own.
22. Needle in the ballots: As each ballot is read out by a Scrutineer, he pierces it with a needle, which goes through the word Eligo. The ballots are all threaded together and the ends are twisted into a knot after all the ballots have been counted, according to current conclave guidelines.
23. Ballots aren’t the only things burned. Any notes the cardinals have made during the process are thrown into the fire too.
24. Cardinals can’t watch the news, listen to the radio, or even read newspapers or magazines during the conclave.
25. Two oaths: You may have seen the cardinals on Tuesday taking an oath to follow the rules and observe strict secrecy regarding the deliberations of the conclave. They also take a second oath each time they approach the altar to drop off their ballots. The second oath reads as follows: I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.
26. A cardinal can legally break silence about a conclave after the fact only if given express permission by the new Pope.
27. Voting records from each session are otherwise kept in a sealed envelope—only to be opened if the Pope allows it.