Cardinals Under Oath of Secrecy Start Process to Pick Leader of 1.2 Billion Catholics Amid Broad Divisions in the Church
VATICAN CITY—Cardinals swore an oath of secrecy and locked themselves inside the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday, starting a conclave that they hope will elect a new pope who can heal divisions inside Roman Catholicism's hierarchy while tending to its 1.2 billion faithful.
The procession of cardinals into the chapel capped a day of carefully scripted events designed to showcase unity among the princes of the church as well as their continuity with centuries of tradition. But the rituals came against a backdrop of stark splits over what kind of leader Catholicism needs to guide it in its 21st century.
In the evening, black smoke rose from the chapel, signaling that cardinals didn't reach the two-thirds majority needed to choose a new pope in their first vote. The voting was set to continue on Wednesday morning.
In recent weeks, cardinals from around the world have publicly vented grievances over the opaque governance of the Roman Curia, the Vatican's scandal-plagued administrative body, pitting themselves against a coterie of colleagues who are longtime Vatican insiders.
Pope Benedict XVI's resignation—the first in some 600 years—sparked a flurry of discussion over a range of issues, including the management of the Vatican's bank and the sluggish pace of reforms aimed at making Holy See finances more transparent. Cardinals have also deliberated over the need to revive Roman Catholicism in Europe, its historic home, and the shift of Catholicism's demographics toward the Southern Hemisphere.
Before the 115 voting cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel, they filed into St. Peter's Basilica, where they celebrated a Mass "for electing the Roman pontiff," a ceremony that sets the tone for cardinals voting in the conclave. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, used his homily to call upon cardinals to unite behind whoever steps into the shoes of St. Peter.
"Each of us is…called to cooperate with the Successor of Peter, the visible foundation of such an ecclesial unity," said Cardinal Sodano, who served as the powerful secretary of state under Pope John Paul II and the early part of Pope Benedict's papacy.
Before him, seated in neat rows of flowing crimson robes, were the cardinal electors, some of whom view Cardinal Sodano as the ultimate Vatican insider.
Later in the day, the cardinals walked in procession through corridors lined with frescoes, marble and Swiss Guards donning warlike helmets. Once inside the chapel, the cardinals swore an oath together to not reveal any information about the election to the outside world.
"We promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman pontiff," the cardinals said under the looming fresco of Michelangelo's Last Judgment. Each cardinal then approached a lectern, placed his right hand on the gospel and, in varying accents, pledged in Latin an individual oath of secrecy.
A master of ceremonies then pronounced "extra omnes"—Latin for "everyone out." Vatican staff—ranging from former Pope Benedict's personal secretary to audiovisual technicians bearing tripods—suddenly poured out of the chapel. The massive wooden doors then shut with a thud.
At that point, attention focused on the world's only point of contact with the cardinals: A slim smokestack protruding from the top of the Sistine Chapel. When a pope is elected, white smoke rises from the stack. When voting fails to produce the two-thirds majority required for a new pontiff, the smoke is black.
Thousands of people filled the square, but there was plenty of room to walk around. People hoisted flags from all over the world, including Brazil, Mexico, Malta and France.
When the smoke first emerged from the chimney, it appeared pale on the massive screens planted throughout the square, prompting cheers from faithful who thought a new pope had already been elected. A collective groan of disappointment quickly followed as the smoke billowed out, pitch black.
Ines Pena, a 21-year-old student from Portugal studying fashion communication in Rome, said she wasn't religious, but sees the conclave corresponding with her time in Rome as a "huge coincidence" and she's not willing to "pass up the historical value of what is going on." She has classes on Wednesday, but "I'll try to get up early to get here," and then will come back after classes are over if a pope isn't selected by then.
"I would really like to see the American guy—O'Malley—get it. But I don't think they would elect an American pope," she said, referring to Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston.
Bill Appel, a 36-year-old seminarian from Covington, Ky., is halfway through his five years of studies in Rome at the North American College. He doesn't have a favorite in the conclave. "There are just too many biographies to be familiar with." His friend and fellow seminarian, Christopher Deleon from Baltimore, is just "hoping they pick the holiest cardinal."