Word came this morning that the Papal Conclave will begin on Tuesday, March 12th.

The word conclave comes from the Latin cum clave (with key).  The Cardinals will be locked “with a key” in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope.

At the beginning of the “sede vacante” (the “empty chair” of St. Peter), the College of Cardinals assume the governance of the Church.  They meet daily in General Congregation to deal with limited church business and to go over the conclave arrangements. A Particular Congregation consisting of 4 cardinals also meets to handle routine matters and pressing needs of governance.

The cardinals will also choose two theologians “known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority” to address the cardinals on the issues facing the church and the need for careful discernment when choosing the pope. The first is speech occurs during a meetings of the General Congregation, and the second on the first afternoon of conclave. Before conclave begins, the cardinals will also meet informally to discuss a issues facing the church and the cardinals who might be elected.

The conclave begins with a Mass Pro Eligendo Papa (“for electing the pope”). This Mass, celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica, is the last public event before the election begins. Tuesday afternoon, the cardinals will process in to the Sistine Chapel.  The order “extra omnes” (all out) is given and everyone who is not authorized to be in the room must leave.

Secrecy and avoiding outside influence is vital. The cardinals take two oaths of secrecy, one when they arrive in Rome and one when the conclave begins. The Sistine Chapel is swept for electronic listening devices; the cardinals are barred from outside communications, including reading the news; and they must stay together at the Domus Santa Marta, a residence on Vatican grounds.

The few people allowed near them must take an oath of secrecy: aides/masters of ceremonies; housekeeping and cooking staff; two doctors; and priests for hearing confessions (even who said, “please pass the salt” at dinner is secret). A cardinal who is ill and requires assistance may have a personal aide. All of these people must be approved by the Particular Congregation.

Election is done by scrutiny, or secret ballot.  A two-thirds majority of the cardinals present is required to elect a pope. 

Under the rules, secret ballots can be cast once on the first day of the conclave, then normally twice during each subsequent morning and evening session. Except for periodic pauses, the voting continues until a new pontiff is elected. Only cardinals under the age of 80 when the “sede vacante,” begins are eligible to enter the conclave and vote for the next pope.

In theory, any baptized male Catholic can be elected pope, but current church law says he must become a bishop before taking office; since the 15th century, the electors always have chosen a fellow cardinal.

Cardinals write the name of the person they choose to elect on a piece of paper.  Each cardinal then walks to the altar, holding up his folded ballot so it can be seen, and says 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.” He places his ballot on a plate, or paten, and then slides it into a receptacle.

When all the ballots have been collected, they are read aloud, counted and double-checked.

If the vote is inconclusive, the ballots are burned with chemicals to produce a black smoke.  If the vote is successful, chemicals are added to produce white smoke.  Previously, ballots were burned dry to produce white smoke, or damp straw was added to produce black smoke.

In 2005, the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica were also rung to signal an election.

Would you like to join the 373,000 other people (including me) who have adopted a Cardinal?  Visit:  This does not mean you are to pray that this Cardinal is elected our next Holy Father — you receive the name of a Cardinal to pray for now, before the Conclave, during the Conclave, and for three days after the Conclave.

I received Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro from Portugal!  If you sign up for one, post who you received in the comments section!

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4 Responses to Conclave!

  1. Molly Schmidt says:

    The Cardinal I’m praying for is Velasio De Paolis CS, from Italy! He’s the President emeritus of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.

  2. Gerry Monday says:

    I am praying for Cardinal Polycarp Pengo. He is the Archbishop of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He was born on May 8th, 1944 and has been a Cardinal since Feb. 2, 1998.

  3. Dan Herda says:

    I have adopted Oswald Gracias from India. He was born in 1924 and has been Cardinal since 2007. He is the Archbishop of Bombay (Mumbai), India.

  4. Bob Boehler says:

    My adopted Cardinal is Angelo Bagnasco, the Archbishop of Genoa, Italy. His birthday, January 14th, is one day before mine.

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