No easy task ahead for the next pope

Few institutions are as steeped in tradition as the Catholic Church. Its rituals pre-date anything in modern times.

This morning in Vatican City, 115 cardinals entered the historic Sistine Chapel to go into conclave and elect a new pope.

After the shocker on February 11th when 85-year-old Pope Benedict announced he was resigning due to “lack of strength of mind and body”, the papal city has been buzzing with preparations, speculations as to who the next pope will be, and what he will stand for.

Benedict was no spring chicken when elected in 2005 as the 265th pope to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He was 78 years old, which made him the oldest man in 275 years to be elected. He was the first pope to step aside in 600 years, the last being Pope Gregory Xll who resigned in 1415 to settle a threatened split in the church.

Few institutions are as steeped in tradition as the Catholic Church. Its rituals pre-date anything in modern times. The first pope, also known as the Bishop of Rome, was St. Peter, one of Christ’s Apostles (AD 33-64). The recognized longest serving pope was Pius 1X (1846-1878) who served for almost 32 years.

Among the cardinals today are three Canadian bishops including front-runner Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet. He is the prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and worked closely with Pope Benedict.

The Sistine Chapel was named after Pope Sixtus 1V who commissioned it and conducted the first mass in the finished building in 1483. The chapel has the same dimensions as the Temple of Solomon on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It may be plain on the outside but inside are Botticelli’s frescos on the walls and Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling. But before those Old Testament images were crafted, the vaulted ceiling was painted blue with gold stars depicting the night sky by artist Piero Matteo d’Amelia. When Michelangelo got to work, he painted the ceiling standing on a platform (no, he didn’t lie on his back as myths claim) and the project took from 1508 to 1512.

Once the cardinals had sworn an oath of secrecy and entered the Chapel, the doors were locked. This action is where the word “conclave” comes from, being Latin cum clave, or “closed with key”.

Time is of the essence. Taking too long is what started conclave in the first place. In 1268 the College of Cardinals (of which there were only 20) met in the village of Viterbo north of Rome to elect a pope following the death of Pope Clement 1V. They bickered for three years and three of them died in the process. Finally the villagers got so frustrated they locked them in the episcopal palace and reduced their diet to bread and water. When Pope Gregory X emerged victorious in 1271 he promptly institutionalized conclave having learned from that grim experience that a lock-up gets results.

The cardinals will begin casting ballots this evening and voting continues four times daily until a two-thirds plus one majority (77 votes) decides the new pope. After each vote, the ballots are burned in a specially installed stove and chimney. Black smoke (the burned ballots, wet straw and added chemicals) is the signal to the outside world that there’s no pope yet while white smoke (the burned ballots) signals one has been chosen.

The new pope faces huge challenges for the church. While Pope Benedict apologized for the Catholic Church’s cover up of sexual abuse scandals many people felt that the apology fell short. The Vatileaks, when the pope’s butler leaked documents to a journalist revealing high level corruption, didn’t help the church’s image either. And then there’s the issue of women’s equality.

The next pope will have his work cut out for him.