Pope and Circumstance

When the pontiff dies, the rituals commence. How many in favor of "pope Kevin"?

When it is suspected that a pope has reached his end, an expert is sent in to complete his reign. The papal chamberlain (or camerlengo, a title much in the public's mouth both through recent reports of Pope John Paul II's death and the weirdness of Dan Brown's bestselling novel Angels and Demons) approaches with a small silver hammer. He taps the pope's forehead with this hammer three times, calling out to him in Latin and addressing him by his baptismal (rather than papal) name. If there is no response, the pope's ring is removed and the same hammer is used to shatter it. His reign is over and a conclave is called.

The high-sounding conclave had a rough beginning. Its name (Latin cum, "with," and clavis, "key") does not stem from the fact that its duty is to elect a new bearer for the keys to heaven, which Christ first passed to Peter. The pope receives a great many things—miters, robes, staffs, rings, riches—but no keys. The origin of the conclave's name is more humble—and coercive.

In the 13th century, after a series of trying papal vacancies during which next to no church business could be conducted, it became clear that a reform was in order. In 1271, as a stalemate in the election process was nearing its fourth year, the flock took things into its own hands. The local officials in Viterbo—where, due to chronic instability in nearby Rome, the papal residence was then located—hastened the process. By order of the mayor, the doors to the Episcopal Palace, where the Sacred College of Cardinals was in session, were locked and boarded up. Guards were posted to prevent escape or entry. The town's secular officials then began to exert temporal pressure. The 15 feuding cardinals inside were told that if after three days they had not arrived at a decision, their meals would be restricted. If five further days elapsed without an election, only bread, wine, and water would be supplied. This nutritive window was to be further narrowed if a decision was not yet made. Even for the elect, fasting has its limits, but the proactive officials of Viterbo did not cease here. They clambered to the roof of the palace and tore off the majority of the tiles of the chapel in which the cardinals were deliberating. Exposed thus to indignity and the elements, the deadlock between the French and Italian contingents was finally broken and a new pope was elected.

A papal name is a papal program. Innocent calls up a heritage of innocents, just as John Paul calls upon a dually apostolic one (though there is no restriction imposed upon a new pope—a point a Vatican official recently illustrated by noting that "a Pope Kevin I is possible, though unlikely"). The pope whom the Viterbians sequestered and starved the Sacred College into electing wasn't a cardinal, or even a priest, and took the prudent name of Gregory (Greek for "watchful"). His vigilant eye told him that further successions could be menaced by further deadlocks and so, to the horror of the cardinals, declared sequestration—or conclave, as it was tactfully called—to be the best way of keeping the holy seat occupied. (No mention was made in the formal constitution of the conclave—"Ubi Periculum"—about de-roofing recalcitrant cardinals, though Viterbian roofers would re-enter papal history a mere three years later: Pope John XXI's brief reign ended when the roof of his study collapsed on him.)

Local changes have been made, but the fundamental features of the conclave as laid down by Gregory X have remained unchanged. One thing that has changed is the roof over the sacred cardinals' heads. There's no risk that in the coming days or weeks the impatient in Rome—or a contingent of visiting Viterbians—will try to expose them to the rough elements. The location where they have met since is nothing short of ideal.

Ever since Michelangelo completed his work in the Sistine Chapel in 1541, all but an isolated few conclaves have been held there. Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon, the wisest of men, served as the chapel's model, and it was accordingly built with the same dimensions: twice as long as it is high, three times as long as it is wide. Aware of the model's fate (destruction by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E.), the builders outfitted it at construction (which began in 1475) with walls 10 feet thick, a walkway around its roof for sentinels, arrow slits for archers, and holes in the walls for pouring boiling oil out of. The ceiling was adorned with an image of the firmament made from the richest materials in the world—precious gold, and still more precious ultramarine (derived from lapis lazuli and more expensive per ounce than gold). But only a few years after its construction a rift opened in the firmament. The rock of the church is built, as history would have it, on unstable ground. The marshy base beneath the Vatican's 180 acres leads to shifting in the buildings' bases. Just a few years after the chapel's construction, it had to be reinforced with metal bars—and a new firmament was needed.

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