Archbishop Piero Marini closes the doors to the Sistine Chapel as the cardinals began the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.


Archbishop Piero Marini closes the doors to the Sistine Chapel as the cardinals began the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.

March 11, 2013

Chanting the Litany of the Saints, asking a host of holy men and women to help them, the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel in procession, aware of their enormous responsibility to elect a new pope.

Fewer than half of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote for a successor to Pope Benedict XVI were in the 2005 conclave that elected him.

Two of those that were – Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa and South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier – described the scene as being one of deep prayer and some trembling.

Rodriguez Maradiaga said, during the conclave, the cardinals spend most of their time in the Sistine Chapel, even though they cast ballots only four times a day.

The time in the chapel includes prayer, writing names on ballots and counting them. But when casting each vote, each cardinal must stand and publicly swear, in Latin, that he is voting according to his conscience. With 115 cardinal electors expected, that will take time.

"In front of the crucifix and in front of the 'Final Judgment' painting, we say, 'I call Jesus as a witness, and he will judge me that I have elected according to my conscience,' so you can imagine . . . why it takes so long. And in the meantime, when everybody is casting their votes, we are praying, so it is like a big cenacle of prayer."

"This is beautiful," Rodriguez Maradiaga said. "This is the most loving experience, how an election should be."

Napier told CNS that although he has the experience of the 2005 conclave, "It's probably going to be just as frightening, just as (much) anxiety" this time.

That's because "I'd say there's a wider field of choices; there are younger cardinals who I believe have real qualities of leadership."

Napier said when the cardinals arrive in the chapel, they make a formal vow of secrecy, then each cardinal goes up and puts a hand on the Bible, confirming his oath.

Once a cardinal sits down, he said, he sees on his table the list of names of the cardinals, the ballot paper, the instructions and a small biography of each cardinal.

"Then you know you really are about to get down to business very soon," he said. There is "a sense of excitement, a sense of anxiety," wondering "how is it all going to work out?"

"But probably the most solemn, the most difficult, frightening (moment) is when you go with your ballot paper in your hand and hold it up in front of the altar and say, 'I call on the Lord Jesus, who will be my judge, to witness that I am voting for the one I believe to be worthy.'

"That's really a moment of intense emotion, faith, all these emotions come together at that point. If I'm voting for unworthy reasons, I'm actually asking Jesus to judge me, to condemn me, so it's a very, very solemn moment," Napier said.

After each cardinal votes, the ballots are opened and read out, one by one, he said. Since each cardinal has a complete list of cardinals, "you're ticking off as the votes are being cast for one person or another and then totting it up at the end."

If no candidate has reached the two-thirds required for a valid election, the ballots and all the lists with their counts "are all gathered and taken to the back of the chapel to be burned," he said.

Pope Benedict, and Blessed John Paul before him, both have acknowledged the awesomeness of the scene in the Sistine.

Less than a week after his election, Pope Benedict said that when the voting was showing him to be the clear favourite he prayed to God "to spare me." He said he told God, "You have candidates who are younger, better, stronger and have more élan than me."

"Evidently God did not listen to me," he said. As the votes neared the two-thirds necessary to elect him, it became evident that "the guillotine was coming closer and was meant for me."

Blessed John Paul, in his 2003 collection of poems, Roman Triptych, described the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and wrote, "It is here, at the feet of this marvelous Sistine profusion of colour that the cardinals gather – a community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the kingdom."

Michelangelo helps the cardinals in their deliberations, he wrote, praying that God would point out to the cardinals God's choice for the next pope.