The next leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be chosen by a Vatican conclave of 115 cardinals, all of whom are blocked from contact with the outside world. The rules are rigid, but the beds are comfortable.
If Saint Martha's House were a hotel, it would probably have three stars. The Vatican's guest house located next to Saint Peter's Basilica has 105 suites and 26 single rooms that are comfortably furnished. However, the telephones, television sets, radios and computers have been removed. Its residents, 115 cardinals from around the world, are not allowed any contact with the world at large, starting on Tuesday (12.03.2013). That prohibition includes communication with their closest associates and family members.
The cardinals are permitted to discuss only with one another - for example, in the large communal dining hall, or at mass. Reading is one of the few options for cardinals looking for ways to relax. Karl Lehmann, a cardinal who serves as Bishop of Mainz, was at the last conclave in 2005. This time, he's brought a work by a medieval theologian who reflects on the criteria that a good pope must fulfill.
Saint Martha's guest house has a history much shorter than that of its neighbors. It was built in the 1990s. In centuries gone by, the cardinals had to sleep in storerooms, crates and tiny rooms.
You talk, you're out
The cardinals must adhere to utmost secrecy as they select a pope from among their ranks. If they violate the rules by speaking out, they will be automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The sequestration includes not tweeting, as Benedict XVI confirmed in an edict shortly before his resignation.
On their trip from the guest house to the Apostolic Palace, home to the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals who will select the next pope are shielded and prevented from having contact with security personnel and Vatican workers. It's no surprise then that the cardinals cannot carry mobile phones, tablet computers and other devices. However, the church officials are not subject to a physical inspection on their way in, according to a Vatican insider.
The secret selection procedure begins with the cardinals' procession into the Sistine Chapel, the beautifully painted space whose front wall depicts the Last Judgment. That reminds the cardinals of the responsibility they bear, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn from Austria told journalists in Rome.
"There's no discussion; there's prayer. That may seem somewhat strange, but this selection process is about finding out whom God has chosen," Schönborn said of the atmosphere during voting.
Cardinal Lehmann confirmed that account in an interview with Vatican Radio, saying, "At most, one could perhaps whisper with one's neighbor. There's not complete silence, but there's also no chatting."
Four votes per day
There's just one voting round on the first day. Beginning on the second day, there are four rounds of voting, explains Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. The cardinals sit in long rows at tables and proceed to write down on a piece of paper the name of the candidate they have selected. They are asked to disguise their handwriting but write legibly. The voting supervisor, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then calls each cardinal, who steps forward to put his vote in a large urn. While doing so, each cardinal states that he has voted for the person he believes God has chosen.
It's a moment that "sends a chill down your spine," says Cardinal Lehmann.
After the voting process, which takes around an hour, the votes are read by three randomly selected helpers. The individual ballots are then pierced by a needle and placed on a thread before being burned. If no candidate receives the necessary two-thirds majority (77 out of 115 votes), then a bit of tar is burned. The smoke, which billows through a long pipe that leads out of the chapel, takes on a black hue. But if the majority is reached, then chemicals are burned to turn the smoke white.
The smoke signal communicates to everyone gathered at Saint Peter's Square whether a new pope has been selected.
Once a cardinal has been selected, he must declare that he accepts the church's highest office. He is then formally clothed. Around 45 minutes later, the cardinals and the new pope appear at the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica in order to announce the new pope's name. In 2005, after Pope Benedict's selection, a Vatican attendant managed to pass a Twitter announcement to a waiting journalist before the famous words "Habemus papam" had been spoken on the balcony. The world learned - to Joseph Ratzinger's dismay - the name of the new church leader a few minutes earlier than planned.
Chocolate bars - just in case
On Monday (11.03.2013), the cardinals met one last time to discuss the Vatican Bank's business affairs, which have been criticized by the European Union, among others, for lacking transparency. The new pope will face a number of reforms within the Roman Curia, the Holy See's administrative apparatus.
Internally, the cardinals discussed the so-called Vati-Leaks affair, in which secret papal documents were made public, and worked through the various abuse scandals in parts of the Catholic Church. Three cardinals who put together a 300-page report on the grievances within the Church are said to have presented the results of their studies. But the details of what was discussed will remain secret - that's also one of the conclave's regulations.
On Monday evening, individual cardinals could still be seen having dinner in the restaurants surrounding the Vatican - their final meal in freedom, so to speak.
The portly cardinal, Timothy Dolan, from New York joked that he was planning to take a couple of chocolate bars into the conclave. The food's not supposed to be very good, he said.