Papal election: 10 fun facts

By Efrosini Costa

Cardinals attend a mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. REUTERS
Cardinals attend a mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. REUTERS
While no pope was chosen following the first conclave vote, we decided to explore the mysticism and rituals surrounding the election process a little further.

As the doors to the Sistine Chapel remain closed and cardinals prepare for another day of voting – after the first conclave vote proved unsuccessful – we decided to take a closer look into the traditions behind the process; its history and some generally interesting details.

We’ve compiled a list of what we think are the ten most interesting facts about the election of the Pope, that are sure to make for fascinating reading and may even impress your family and friends at dinner.

– There have been 110 papal elections that have produced popes recognised by the Catholic Church. the first took place in 1059.

-Although papal elections have historically taken place in Rome, only five have been held outside the Apostolic Palace and 28 have been held outside Rome.

–    The longest attempt to elect a new pope lasted more than two years, due to political infighting between the cardinals following the death of Pope Clement IV in the 13th century. The shortest conclave observing took only a matter of hours during the 1503 elections of Julius II.

–     The youngest ever to ascend to the papal office was Pope John XII, who was 18 when he was elected Pope in 955. The eldest popes were Pope Celestine III (elected in 1191) and Celestine V (elected in 1294). Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI was 78 when he was elected. While Italian cardinals have had a stranglehold on the position of Pope, there have been exceptions with one Polish, German, Spanish, Syrian and Dutch

–    The term conclave came about after the cardinals were forced to stay inside until they elected a pope. The term ‘conclavis’ means ‘locked up with key’.

–    Reduced rations, of only bread and water, and a removal of the roof where the elections were taking place were all measures imposed to end the lengthy election. The desperate measures worked in this case!

–    This current election of the new pope will see a break with tradition. While cardinals will continue to meet and vote in the Sistine chapel, they won’t be locked in. Instead they will board in nearby Casa Santa Maria, hotel-style facilities built in the Vatican.

–    Only cardinals under 80 years of age are able to vote for the pope, the decision was made Pope Paul VI in 1970.

–    The black smoke, a signal of a failed ballot, was once achieved when wet straw was added to the burning of unsuccessful ballots – these days a chemical compound is used. Since the cardinals are isolated form the rest of the world during voting, it was concocted as the only way to send a message to devotees.

–    When the vote is successful white smoke will billow through the chimney, a result of the ballot papers being burnt alone, and church bells will ring out.

–    An elected cardinal can refuse the position of Pope. Once an elected cardinal assents to his election the dean Cardinal will ask the cardinal to announce his new name.

–    At the deathbed of a pope a medieval ritual is performed were a silver hammer is lightly tapped on the pope’s forehead three times, calling him by his Christian name. When there is no reply he is pronounced dead and his papal ring and seals are broken.



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