It begins with prayers chanted in an ancient language and ends with a tiny figure on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica unveiled as the supreme pontiff of more than a billion Catholics. The conclave to elect a pope, which starts Tuesday, unfolds with elaborate ritual, deep secrecy and politicking that would warm the heart of a machine politician. While carried out in the trappings of past centuries, “in reality, the elections are a political fact,” said Paolo Francia, author of “The Conclave.” The voting is minutely scripted. Rectangular paper ballots are counted, collected, pierced with a needle and burned. Exactly four rounds of voting are permitted each day. The winner’s name is intoned in Latin. It is a process dating back centuries, with a rich history of chicanery — like the bought election of Julius II in 1503 and the undermining of a leading contender, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, in 1978, thanks to the leaking of an embargoed interview he gave. There are no formal nominees, and technically, each cardinal enters the conclave as a possible pope. The next pope must garner two-thirds of the votes, or 77 of 115 in this case. In practice, a few names always emerge as favorites beforehand, although the principal truism is, “Go in a pope, come out a cardinal.”
The first ballot, expected late Tuesday afternoon, serves effectively as a primary. It identifies the cardinals to whom votes can flow in succeeding rounds — two every morning, two every afternoon.
“I expect the first vote is going to be quite scattered around,” said Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa, given “the wider field of candidates with the potential” to become pope.
While the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the guiding light behind a pope’s selection, the cardinals are known to negotiate between the ritualistic voting rounds over dinner and coffee, although the constitution governing papal transitions forbids them to make deals.
The conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 as Benedict XVI lends some insight into how the voting progresses.
In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger jumped out to a quick lead with 47 votes, according to the diary of an unnamed cardinal, as reported by an Italian state television journalist, Lucio Brunelli, in the journal Limes later that year. While never verified, the outline of Mr. Brunelli’s version was reflected in other accounts.