VATICAN CITY — It's a ritual as rich in tradition and symbolism as the Catholic Church can muster: secret oaths, hypnotic Gregorian chants, scarlet-decked cardinals filing through the Sistine Chapel – all while the public outside in St. Peter's Square watches for white smoke or black to learn if it has a new pope.
Much of the ritual's current incarnation is the work of Archbishop Piero Marini.
The Vatican's master of liturgical celebrations for two decades under Pope John Paul II, Marini organized the funeral rites for the late pontiff and the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. He was by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's side minutes after the election when the new pope uttered the words "I accept" – officially launching his papacy on April 19, 2005.
"I still remember, with some emotion, the silence that there was – the participation of the cardinals," Marini recalled in an interview in his Vatican offices. "It was an event that had been prepared with great care."
Next month's conclave to elect the 266th leader of the world's billion Catholics will have all the grand trappings of papal elections past – with the added twist that this time around the current pope is still alive.
Benedict's resignation, the first papal abdication in 600 years, has caused chaos in the Vatican: Nobody knows for sure what he'll be called much less what he'll wear after Feb. 28. But one thing is clear: The rules and rituals to elect his successor will follow Marini's "bible" of how to run a conclave – a dense tome of footnoted decrees, floor-plans, directions and photos. The book will serve as a guide when 117 cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect Benedict's successor.
The Vatican said Saturday that the Holy See in the coming days or weeks would publish an update to the main apostolic constitution that guides the papal transition with some ceremonial tweaks, perhaps taking into account the influence of Benedict's more tradition-minded master of liturgical ceremonies who replaced Marini in 2007. But the fundamentals will likely remain.
The conclave begins with the cardinals in their red cassocks filing into the Sistine Chapel, chanting the monophonic Litany of Saints followed by another sacred song, Veni, Creator Spiritus, imploring the intervention of the saints and Holy Spirit as they take their places before Michelangelo's "Last Judgment."
The cardinals place their hand on the Gospel and promise to observe absolute secrecy both during and after the conclave, and to "never lend support or favor to any interference, opposition or any other form of intervention ... in the election of the Roman Pontiff."
While the Vatican is notoriously obsessed with secrecy, there are actually good historical reasons why conclave proceedings are kept quiet and why cardinals promise to vote independently, said Monsignor Robert Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Up until the early 20th century, papal elections could be vetoed by the kings of France, Spain or the Holy Roman Emperor, Wister noted. The power was rarely invoked but was used in the 1903 conclave to replace Pope Leo XII. Leo's No. 2, the Vatican's secretary of state, was in the lead when his election was blocked by Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph.
The eventual winner, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, took the name Pius X – and promptly abolished the veto power. Still, the memory of outside intervention has continued to weigh over the College of Cardinals, leading them to be sequestered until they have a pope.
Now they have a Vatican hotel to stay in while not voting, but are forbidden from having any contact with the outside world: no phones, no newspapers, no tweeting.
"There is that fear," Wister said. "Going back previous centuries, kings did interfere, sometimes with an army."
Secrecy under penalty of excommunication also ensures that the winner doesn't know who among his cardinals voted against him – an important element going forward to keep the church's top leadership unified.
"It's not the Renaissance where he'd be poisoned, but it's a matter of human respect," Wister said.
Once the final oath is taken, the master of liturgical ceremonies gives the order "Extra omnes" (everyone out) and all those not taking part in the conclave leave the frescoed walls of the chapel.
An elderly cardinal, over age 80 and thus ineligible to participate, remains and reads a meditation about the qualities a pope should have and the challenges facing the church, after which he and the master of ceremonies leave the cardinals to begin voting.
On Day 1, only one round of balloting is taken; after that cardinals cast two votes in the morning, two in the afternoon until they have a victor. A two-thirds majority is necessary.
Each cardinal writes his choice on a paper inscribed with the words "Eligo in summen pontificem," or "I elect as Supreme Pontiff." They approach the altar one by one and say: "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."
The folded ballot is placed on a round plate and slid into an oval urn. After the votes are counted and the outcomes announced, the papers are bound together with a needle and thread, each ballot pierced through the word "Eligo." Then they are burned with a chemical to send black smoke (meaning no) or white (meaning yes) out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney.
On April 19, 2005, a stunned Ratzinger accepted the charge and was brought into a side room to change into the white vestments of the papacy. Off came the scarlet cassock; underneath was the simpler black clerical garb of a cardinal.
"Naturally the pope couldn't change completely at that moment, so he went out with those black sleeves – we could see his sweater!" Marini recalled. "But even that was a human gesture of how he was dressed as a cardinal."
Marini accompanied Ratzinger out onto the loggia of the basilica overlooking St. Peter's Square where a cardinal announced "Habemus Papam" (We have a pope) to the thousands of people below. The cardinal announced Ratzinger's name in Latin, and then Benedict uttered his first public words as pope, saying he was but a "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord."
Marini noted that that first encounter of the new pope with his flock traces its history to the ancient tradition that the bishop of Rome is elected by the people.
"This appearance by the pope on the balcony, the applause and cheers of joy that erupt when he comes out," he said, "in some way represents the Roman people accepting their pope."
It's one of the potent symbols of a tradition-drenched conclave.
"A religion relies on its customs and practices," said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, former dean of theology at Catholic University of America and professor of liturgy. "This is not like putting up posters and getting a poll of who is winning. This is an act of God."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield
Cardinal Peter Turkson
LONDON - SEPTEMBER 17: Energy secretary Chris Huhne and Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson attend a State Banquet in honour of Pope Benedict XVI at Lancaster House in on September 17, 2010 in London, England. Pope Benedict XVI is conducting the first state visit to the UK by a Pontiff. During the four day visit Pope Benedict will celebrate mass, conduct a prayer vigil as well as beatify Cardinal Newman at an open air mass in Cofton Park. His Holiness will meet The Queen as well as political and religious representatives. (Photo by Chris Radburn - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, splashes holy water during his visit to the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on February 27, 2008. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)
Cardinal Marc Ouellet
TRIER, GERMANY - APRIL 13: Cardinal Marc Ouellet holds a mass in celebration of The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe at the Cathedral of St Peter on April 13, 2012 in Trier, Germany. The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe runs from April 13 to May 13, during which hundreds of thousands pilgrims are expected to view the Holy Robe. The robe, said to have been worn by Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion, is housed by the cathedral and rarely displayed for public viewing. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi
The President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi poses during the presentation of Pope Benedict XVI's new book 'Childhood of Jesus' to the press on November 20, 2012 at the Vatican. “Childhood of Jesus” is the third volume of Joseph Ratzinger's 'Jesus of Nazareth' series. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (L)
Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (L) and the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola chat at La Scala theatre in Milan on June 1, 2012 during the 7th World Meeting of Families. Benedict attended a concert at the prestigious Scala opera house to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim. AFP PHOTO / POOL / DANIEL DAL ZENNARO (Photo credit should read DANIEL DAL ZENNARO/AFP/GettyImages)
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran
President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Vatican City Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (C) pay his respects at the Golden Temple Sikh Shrine in Amritsar on November 11, 2011. Tauran along with four members visited the city to attend a religious seminary on Sikhism and Christians to be held at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar on November 12. AFP PHOTO/NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco
Pope Benedict XVI talks with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of CEI (Italian Bishops' Conference), during an audience with the Curia for Christmas greetings, in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, in Vatican City, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. The Pope met with Cardinals and members of the Roman Curia for an exchange of greetings ahead of the year end festivities. (AP Photo/Claudio Peri, Pool)
Cardinal Timothy Dolan
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan speaks to the press in his residence, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Dolan says he was as startled as the rest of the world about Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he will resign later this month due to failing health. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle
Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines takes place for an audience with the pontif on November 26, 2012 at Paul VI hall at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI led an audience to the six non-European prelates appointed two-days ago as new members of the College of Cardinals. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Cardinal Francis Arinze
Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, right, arrives for a meeting, at the Vatican, Monday, March 4, 2013. Cardinals from around the world have gathered inside the Vatican for their first round of meetings before the conclave to elect the next pope, amid scandals inside and out of the Vatican and the continued reverberations of Benedict XVI's decision to retire. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) CORRECTION: An earlier photo incorrectly identified Bernard Cardinal Agre, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cote D'Ivoire as Cardinal Arinze