Papal conclave goes to heart of Catholic mystery

Elaborate ritual and veils of secrecy are fundamental to the papal mystique

Published March 13, 2013 12:02PM (EDT)

Pope Benedict XVI                 (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)
Pope Benedict XVI (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The papal conclave is steeped in mystery — and the church likes it that way. Elaborate ritual and veils of secrecy, after all, are fundamental to the papal mystique, seen as the glue the binds worshipers in faith.

But in this conclave, the church appears to be making some concessions to the instant clarity expected in the Internet era: Just look at the thick plumes of black smoke that poured from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday and Wednesday to tell the world that the votes had not yielded a winner.

It was a big contrast to conclaves past in which confusion has reigned over the smoke color, with pilgrims in St. Peter's Square screaming: "It's white! ... no, no ... it's black!!"

The smoke ritual itself dates back more than a century. And, regardless of questions of color, the Vatican has no intention of changing the tradition now — saying the uncertainty is part of the beauty of the process.

"A little suspense is good for all of us," said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi. "Don't expect Swiss-watch precision."

Mystery is a big idea in the Catholic faith. Its deepest meaning is that parts of faith are unknowable through reason and intellect alone. Wafting incense, Gregorian chants, ringing bells and other grand rituals of the liturgy are seen as outward manifestation of this concept.

In the conclave, it's the mystery of the Holy Spirit and not a political agenda that is supposed to guide the cardinals in their selection. (In reality, however, everybody knows that politics plays an important role).

Conclaves weren't always this secret.

They were once public events witnessed by hundreds of ordinary people who would watch the voting a bit like one might a sporting event. And politics was much more overtly a factor than it is today: Until the 20th century, some European royalty could veto the choice of the cardinals.

Now super-secrecy prevails, with cellphones, computers and anything connecting the cardinal-electors to the outside world banned.

"Thank God there's still all the good old-fashioned things, like burning the ballots and the chimney going up," said Greg Burke, an ex-Fox News correspondent who is now a communications adviser to the Vatican. "What's older than a smoke signal? It's great that that's there and it's not one of these electronic vote things that a red or green light goes off."

"Why is a conclave so exciting?" he added. "Because we don't know what's going on there and we're not going to know until the smoke comes out."

In 2005, for the conclave that made Benedict pope, the Vatican tried something different with the smoke because of complaints dating to the previous conclave in 1978. A second stove was installed that produced smoke from a chemical compound whipped up by the Vatican's own technicians. The smoke from the ballots burned in the first stove and the colored smoke from the second stove were funneled up through one pipe that leads to the chimney and the outside world.

But that solution hardly made the distinction between black and white smoke any clearer.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said chemicals have now permanently replaced the wet straw traditionally used to create the black smoke. The clarity and abundance of black smoke this time around shows that the Vatican has indeed improved its technology.

The Rev, Thomas Reese, a Jesuit expert on the Vatican, complained in the days before this conclave that, while he likes the smoke signals, the uncertainty over their color takes tradition too far.

"This is not mystery," he said. "This is incompetence."

Maybe the ancient Catholic church is finally learning from its mistakes.


Religion writer Rachel Zoll contributed.

By Victor L. Simpson

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