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Breaking the silence -- secrets of the pope elections

12 march 2013, 11:51
0
The conclaves of cardinals which elect a new pope are laden with rituals and shrouded in secrecy, but tantalising details have emerged from previous votes of what really happens behind the sealed doors of the Sistine Chapel, AFP reports.

The 115 cardinals who have made their way to Rome are members of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world -- and once the doors close behind them on Tuesday with a cry of "Extra Omnes!" ("Everyone Out!") their deliberations must stay exclusive too.

Dressed in scarlet vestments and birettas (skullcaps), they must swear a solemn oath of secrecy or face excommunication.

Even the cleaners and cooks who serve the cardinals must take a pledge to reveal nothing of what they overhear.

The cardinals' splendid isolation is all the more extraordinary in a world of camera phones, Twitter and Facebook -- no electronic devices can be taken in and the Sistine Chapel is swept for bugs.

"The isolation is really complete. Television, radio and newspapers are inaccessible. Phones and mobiles are blocked. But we can talk," one cardinal said of the 2005 conclave which chose German-born Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI.

The level of detail about the conclave that the cardinal revealed is rare, which is why he remains anonymous in the account published in Italian international foreign affairs review Limes.

He recalled that when he arrived at Casa Santa Marta, the spartan residence where the electors stay during their deliberations, he thought the blinds on the windows were broken because they failed to open. In fact, he soon discovered, they were sealed shut.

British cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, now the Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster, said that at the conclave eight years ago he was struck by the fact that the future leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics had to come from among the men locked in the room.

"I remember looking around at all of the other 114 cardinals and thinking: 'One of us will be going out with a white cassock on," he told the BBC.

Unlike this time, there was a strong favourite from the start and the cardinals took just two days to elect Ratzinger and send up the puff of white smoke that signals a new pope has been found.

"When the majority was reached... there was a gasp all around, and then everyone clapped," Murphy-O'Connor said.

Once Ratzinger had accepted his new role -- and chosen the name Benedict XVI -- he invited all of the cardinals to stay for a "convivial dinner", followed by the closest thing to a party that the elderly cardinals can have.

"In he comes, all dressed up. I often wondered what he felt, really. So anyway, we gave him a great clap, we had a very pleasant dinner with some champagne to drink a toast. Then we tried some songs," said Murphy-O'Connor, although it proved hard to settle on one that the polyglot gathering all knew.

While Benedict appeared happy to be elevated to pope, others have been extremely reluctant.

In 1978, Cardinal Franz Koenig of Austria was part of the conclave which elected John Paul I. He recalled that after the new pope had gone onto the balcony to bless the crowd in St Peter's Square, "he said hardly anything, except to complain that we'd elected him".

Perhaps John Paul I felt what was coming -- he was found dead just 33 days later.

The tension of that election in 1978 saw one nicotine-deprived cardinal -- some stories say it was an American, others say he was Spanish -- ask the new pope if he could have a cigarette.

John Paul I thought hard and long before replying: "Eminence, you may smoke, just as long as the smoke is white."

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