How does an ancient institution develop a foolproof system of choosing a leader ? Firstly, it is never foolproof. Secondly, it always evolves.
When the cardinals begin their deliberations, locked in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, on March 12th, their closed meetings follow a tradition established in 1268, in Viterbo.
It had taken 3 years to elect a Pope. The wheeling and dealing amongst the participants was so convoluted, that desperate city magistrates locked the cardinals in the papal palace (clausi cum clave – locked with a key) and eventually resorted to giving them only bread and water for sustenance. When this still proved ineffectual, they apparently pulled the roof tiles off from over their heads to expose them to “heavenly” inspiration. They finally reached a decision and the Visconti Pope Gregory X who emerged, used this precedent to establish rules for what became known as the “Conclave”.
It is only in recent years that the cardinals were no longer bricked up in the Sistine Chapel and were instead finally allowed to sleep comfortably in the Domus Sanctae Marthae in the Vatican, a decision of John Paul II.
Today cardinals represent congregations from across the world in person. In the past the difficulties of travel could result in a small number of easily influenced electors. This was the case in the landmark year of 1492. Columbus had sailed west to find a new world, Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of the Renaissance, had passed away aged only 43, and the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, bribed his way to the throne of St Peter . Once in power Alexander and his enforcer-son Cesare, were known to invite any wavering cardinals to dinner . The main course would normally be pheasant, a delicacy, but served in a human skull , to remind them of their mortality. They quickly agreed to all papal requests, which almost led to the destruction of the Church. The sale of indulgences, a payment for forgiveness of sins past, present and future, undermined ecclesiastical credibility. A mere 14 years after the Borgia Pope died, Martin Luther was nailing his 95 theses on the All Saints Church door in Wittenberg. In 1529 the Germanic Princes issued their Protestation in Speyer. The Reformation had begun.
Papal conclaves have always aroused interest, curiosity and flights of the imagination. In the year 2000, Dan Brown followed up his best-seller The Da Vinci Code with an equally successful thriller, novel and film, Angels and Demons, set in an imaginary conclave.There potential papal front-runners are kidnapped and ritually murdered at symbolic sites in Rome. The killer makes his hide-out behind the forbidding walls of the Castel SantʼAngelo, linked to the Vatican by a secret, enclosed passageway.
Real life stories can be far stranger than fiction. This was the case in 1978 when the non-curia, would-be reformist Pope John Paul I was elected only to die 33 days later, the shortest Papacy of modern times. Conspiracy theories abound . One that has been outlined by David Yallop is his carefully documented 1984 study called In Godʼs Name. There were competing alternative theories, but no convincing resolution to the mystery of the sudden papal death.
On October 16 1978, cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected on the eighth ballot of the second day of the conclave. He adopted the name of John Paul II to emphasize continuity within the Church and followed his predecessor in an inauguration ceremony without a coronation.
I was in Rome to meet a touring group on October 22nd and stood for six hours in St Peterʼs Square, privileged to witness the start of what would become one of the longest Pontificates of all time, 1978-2005. This most widely travelled and popular of all church leaders has already earned the posthumous description of John Paul the Great. His successor Benedict XVI surprised the world this year by offering his almost unprecedented resignation, leading to the current assembly of cardinals .
PS: HABEMUS PAPAM! – In what has been the shortest Conclave for 100 years, Cardinal Bergoglio , of Buenos Aires, has been declared Pope. The popeʼs Twitter account has now been changed from “Sede Vacante” to “Pontifex”.