The Mystery of the Papal Conclave

The choice of pope aims to maintain and ­further the power of the Catholic Church

Opinion | Pol Edinger | March 2013

Mention the word "conclave" in polite conversation and most think of the heavy red cloth of the cardinals’ robes that swishes along as they slowly shuffle into the Sistine Chapel to elect the next Bishop of Rome, the heir of the holy chair of St. Peter’s, the new pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Each time this happens, millions gather on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City or follow the event in newspapers or on television. But what is it that fascinates about the conclave, other than the approximately 2.2 billion Catholics worldwide wanting to know the head of their new church?

In 1241 was the first conclave – a term derived from the Latin con claudere meaning "to seal in together". And that is what the cardinals still do after a Pope dies, or in this case resigns – something Pope Benedict XVI has brought back to the discussion after 790 years of papal life terms.


Hundreds of years of decrees 

This month’s conclave follows hundreds of years of decrees and regulations that reflect the Catholic Church’s responses to socio-cultural and historic upheavals. The choice of Pope aims to maintain, strengthen and further establish the reach and power of the Church as an institution.

Like the first pages of a Dan Brown novel, the robed cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel, heads bowed, completely barred from the the outside world. The heavy wooden door is latched and sealed. No tweets or Facebook posts will leave the Vatican before the white cloud exits the chimney over St. Peter’s announcing a new prelate of the Holy See.

This millennium-old tradition grips the imagination. While reforms in politics can change the shape of a country or its laws, and what is modern today can be obsolete the day after, the conclave’s stubborn insistence on century-old rules is a symbol of the Church’s deceleration, its unshakable focus on the past. And it is this quality that simultaneously frustrates and fascinates people.

Traditions, especially religious ones, mystify the longer they persist. A fog of mystery surrounds the conclave with cardinals, shrouded in a type of Schrödinger’s cat experiment. What happens to the cardinals, alone in the Sistine Chapel? Is the atmosphere tense? Does silence reign or is there loud debate?

Even in times of Wiki and Vati Leaks, the drama of the conclave remains surprisingly secret.


Online forums, viral gossip and Vati Leaks

Myths ignite the imagination, often resulting in conspiracy theories. Some concern the cardinals, plotting and intriguing against each other, using bribery or blackmail to shift power, or even the ulterior motives of the Holy Father to be.

The Vati Leaks scandal in 2012 that released private documents uncovering internal power struggles and Benedict’s private financial information was a poignant example of viral gossip surrounding the highest "house of God". The upcoming conclave is being discussed with feverish intensity on online forums, by self-dubbed detectives and precocious commentators. Without a doubt, this feeds both fascination and conspiracy. But whatever the reasons, in March the world’s eyes are turned towards Rome, not to observe – this we are not allowed – but to follow a ritual strangely alienated from reality but nonetheless gripping. The event is historic before it even happens. We feel oddly connected as we watch from our couch, or read in the media, or even on Twitter. And many will shiver for a short second when the Protodeacon steps out to the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to announce: "Habemus Papam!" ÷


Pol Edinger, originally from Luxembourg, is currently studying Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna.


Other articles from this issue: