New Pope: Beyond the Conclave, Secret Politics

Let the politicking begin.

The world’s eyes are on Rome as the leaderless Roman Catholic Church begins its 2,000-year-old process of choosing a pope.

Cardinals from around the world started gathering Monday in the Vatican, ahead of the conclave expected to begin this Sunday or next week.

Vatican officials said 103 of the 115 electors, cardinals under the age of 80, arrived Monday for the congregation meetings, which begin with an oath of secrecy pledging to maintain “rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman pontiff.”

The real work is done at the meetings at meal time, where Cardinals ask 'Is there anyone looking out for our interests?'

— Michael Collins, author of “The Vatican: Secrets and Treasures of the Holy City

The congregation meetings give the cardinals a chance to get their first impressions of all of the candidates, particularly the front-runners dominating the world’s headlines before the vote. As reported by the National Catholic Reporter, eight years ago Pope Benedict XVI began to stick out as a front-runner while presiding over the meetings as dean of the College of Cardinals.

But as the cameras flash for cardinals entering and leaving the general congregations, Vatican insiders and observers know the real action, the real politicking and maneuvering, occurs behind the scenes in informal meetings over dinner, in small apartment gatherings and in the Casa Santa Marta hotel, where the cardinals will be housed during the duration of the conclave.

The first order of business is to decide on a date for the conclave, a decision that will not be made until all the cardinal electors are present in the congregation meetings. All cardinals are invited to take part in the congregations regardless of age.

The congregations in 2005 lasted 13 days, but expect the congregations this year to be expedited under the circumstances of Pope Benedict’s XVI resignation. During the meetings, the cardinals will set rules for addressing the media and each cardinal will be given approximately seven minutes to address the college about concerns facing the church, including the sexual abuse scandals and the future they foresee for the Catholic Church.

“The congregations are fairly routine and boring,” said the Rev. Michael Collins, author of “The Vatican: Secrets and Treasures of the Holy City,” to Fox News Latino. “The real work is done at the meetings at meal time, where the cardinals ask, Is there anyone looking out for our interests?”

In 2005, secret meetings took place in private apartments, national colleges and in lounges, said John Allen, renowned Vatican expert and author. The groups are typically divided by language set or region – English-speaking and Latin American cardinals meet to discuss the candidates more freely.

“They all start talking about what they need,” Collins explained. “The new pope is going to be someone who can speak a few languages, who is in fit health, who is willing to travel the world, and has fairly good gifts of governance.”

The Hotel

Once the congregation meetings are over, the actual conclave or election process will begin. During that time, the cardinals are housed in a posh hotel, Casa Santa Marta, on the Vatican grounds. Cardinals are not allowed contact with the outside world during the conclave: no laptops, mobile phones or use of wi-fi. Each cardinal gets his own room.

“Most of the politicking happens at the hotel,” Collins said. “They also have other rooms at their disposition that allow the cardinals to bargain things out.”

The hotel, used for the first time as a conclave quarters following Pope John Paul II's death, was said to be pivotal for the selection of Pope Benedict XVI because it offered a chance for the many small informal dinner conversations to come together, with all of the cardinals in one location.

It’s also where pull for a Latin American pope can happen, at its best.

“If they all unite, and provide a strong case for Latin America, the other guys are going to listen to them,” Collins said. “It will be a great chance for one of the new countries to be promoted.”

The Conclave

The conclave begins with Mass in St. Peters Square at about 10 a.m. The cardinals go back to their dorms, have lunch and are bused over to the Sistine Chapel in the afternoon.

During the conclave, which comes from two Latin words meaning “with a key,” the 115 eligible cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel. Secret ballots can be cast once on the first day of the conclave, then on each day after, during the morning and evening. The voting continues until a cardinal gets two-thirds of the votes.

Inside the Sistine Chapel it is quiet – filled with nothing but the silence of prayer. "Then the names of nine random cardinals are chosen: three that will serve as the voting judges or “scrutineers,” three to collect the votes of any sick cardinals who remain in their dorms, and three who revise the count made by the original scrutineers," according to the Catholic News Service who spoke to a canonist.

Each of the cardinals cast a vote in front of the altar, beneath Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment. Each vote begins with the preparation and distribution of paper ballots by two masters of ceremonies. The ballots are folded twice and placed on a plate, which is slid into an urn or large chalice.

As each cardinal places their ballot, they say aloud, "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."

The ballots are read out and the votes are counted by the scrutineers to see if someone has obtained two-thirds majority. Three revisers double-check the ballots.

When a pope is elected, the ballots are burned with chemical additives – they produce white smoke when a pope has been elected, or black smoke when the vote has been inconclusive.

Collins said he doesn’t see this particular conclave lasting more than two or three days. No conclave has gone over five days since 1831.

On the first evening ballot, we’re going to see five or six candidates names come up and that night the cardinals will talk about who is a realistic candidate, Collins explained. Some cardinals may decide they don't want to be in the running. By the fourth or fifth ballot, the remaining two leading vote-getters become one.

“These guys … don’t want to be away from their mobile phones and computers that long, it’s going to be very boring,” Collins said of being stuck in the hotel during the election process. “You have nothing to do but read the bible. They will be anxious to show they are united.”