Pope election: Stringent secrecy ahead of conclave gathering

Swiss guard salutes as Cardinals arrive at the Vatican. Photo: 8 March 2013
Image caption Modern jamming technology will be applied to shield the cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel

Stringent precautions are being taken during the run-up to the conclave and the balloting on a new pope beginning on Tuesday to try to preserve the secrecy both of preliminary discussions and the election process itself.

The election of a new pope has always involved a strange mixture of Church ritual, democratic discussion, and obsessive fear of outside intervention by interested parties.

The papal apartments on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican will remain shuttered and sealed until the new incumbent is chosen.

Double-padded doors to discourage eavesdropping from the outside have preserved papal secrecy inside the palace for hundreds of years.

Ballot papers are burned after each vote to prevent any post election analysis of who voted for whom. Hence the traditional smokestacks - one for a stove where the voting papers are actually burned, and another for emitting either white or black chemical smoke to signal the result to an anxious and excited outside world.

Cassocks delivered

Image caption Black smoke, white smoke - stoves are ready to signal ballot results

But 21st Century jamming technology is also being applied - not only to shield the Sistine Chapel and prevent any cardinals tweeting news of the balloting to outsiders - but also to cut off the cardinal electors electronically and telephonically from the outside world until one of their number has received the necessary two thirds of the votes of the Electoral College in order to be formally declared Bishop of Rome and Servant of the Servants of God.

Opaque plastic sheeting has been pasted over all windows in the conclave area to prevent paparazzi from shooting pictures from outside.

Mobile phones will be banned, and secretarial staff - although not the cardinals themselves - will be frisked by Vatican gendarmes to make sure no-one breaks the embargo on the revelation of the identity of the new pope the moment that the stove pipe erected on the roof of the Sistine Chapel starts to emit white smoke - the sign of a successful ballot.

"We rely on the good faith and trust of the cardinals," said Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.

The Jesuit priest has been the sole authoritative official source of information on the discussions on the future of the Catholic Church which have been taking place since 1 March.

Image caption Benedict withdrew quietly from the Vatican scene last month

The VIP suite in the Sanctae Marthae Vatican residence, where the 115 cardinal electors will lodge during the conclave, will be occupied by the new pope as his temporary home as soon as he finishes acknowledging the cheers of the faithful in St Peter's Square upon the announcement of his election.

Three sets of white papal cassocks have already been delivered to the Vatican by papal tailor Lorenzo Gamarelli so that the newly elected pontiff can change into his new white ecclesiastical dress minutes after his election.

Benedict factor

So far, according to the Vatican, none of the cardinal electors has travelled to the Papal summer palace at Castel Gandolfo, 15 miles (24km) south-east of Rome, where Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been living since his retirement on 28 February, for consultations with the former pontiff.

A generic message of thanks was drafted by the Electoral College and sent to the former Pope for his long service to the Church.

Benedict clearly intended to deflect any accusations that he tried to influence the result of the election of his successor.

He withdrew quietly from the Vatican scene, even though he intends to return to live permanently inside the walls of Vatican City as soon as the accommodation being prepared for him there is completed in two months' time.

The mere fact that he has personally appointed more than 60 of the 115 cardinals taking part in the election of his successor speaks for itself.

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