The voting for pope begins after Piero Marini stands up in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and shouts: “Everybody out!”
Except he does it in Latin. He says: “ Extra omnes!” Meaning everyone who is not authorized to be in the room has to leave. And the words are part of Archbishop Marini's minutely scripted role as Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations in an ancient ritual of the Roman Catholic Church.
The procedure to elect a successor to John Paul II —beginning April 18 in Pope Sixtus IV's incomparable 15th-century chapel situated between St. Peter's Basilica and the papal apartments — possibly follows the most elaborate, complex set of rules that humankind has yet designed.
Spontaneity is non-existent. Idiosyncratic behaviour is not on. The eligible cardinal-electors — there are 117 from 53 countries — will behave precisely as cardinal-electors have done for more than 800 years.
The rules of a papal-election conclave, the Ordo Rituum Conclavis, specify everything from how cardinal-electors are to disguise their handwriting when writing a candidate's name on a ballot, to how they are to fold their ballots and carry them up to the chapel's altar, to how their ballots are counted and the results announced.
In the early afternoon of the conclave's first day, the cardinals in their scarlet robes proceed according to rank and seniority to the chapel to the accompaniment of a ninth-century Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, O Creator).
They are followed by a train of officials, assistants, doctors, nurses, caterers, waiters, cleaners, confessors and electronics experts who ensure no one has a tucked-away cellphone or wireless modem.
The chapel is 40 metres long, 13 metres wide and almost 21 metres high, lit by six large windows on either side. Rows of desks and chairs are along each long wall with place names for where each cardinal sits. A table on which the ballots are to be counted is in front of the altar under Michelangelo's mighty Last Judgment at the chapel's west end.
Here the cardinals will vote four times a day (although only once on the first afternoon) until a pope is elected. They will sleep, perform their ablutions and rest 350 metres away in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a residence opened in 1996.
First, everyone who will be allowed in the chapel during the voting swears an oath of secrecy, the penalty for violation being excommunication or expulsion from the church.
Once the oath is taken, Archbishop Marini shouts, “ Extra Omnes!” and the unauthorized leave.
Then an official orator delivers a kind of ecclesiastical pep talk, telling the cardinals of the paramount need for integrity of intention and wise discernment “with [their] eyes fixed on God alone.”
Nine cardinals at random are chosen as “scrutineers,” “infirmarians” and “revisers.” Officials distribute rectangular ballot forms with the printed words Eligo in Summum Pontificem (“I elect as Supreme Pontiff”) and a space underneath.
Then Archbishop Marini, the orator, and the officials leave and the door is shut by the most junior cardinal. The electors are alone (except for doctors, nurses, caterers and so on). There is no talk, no speeches. Any politicking is done at the Domus Sanctae Marthae.
The cardinals mark their ballots. “As far as possible,” says an authoritative conclave guide, “they should try to alter their normal handwriting so that it is not easily recognizable as theirs.”
With their ballots folded lengthwise — that, too, is prescribed — and “held aloft between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand,” each cardinal, according to seniority, walks to the table before the altar.
He says aloud: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one whom, before God, I think should be elected.”
He places his ballot on a paten — the plate for communion bread — and tilts it so that the ballot slides into a chalice normally used for communion wine.
If any cardinal can't come to the altar because of disability, a scrutineer collects his ballot. If a cardinal is sick elsewhere in the Vatican, his ballot is collected by an infirmarian.
When all the ballots are collected, the scrutineers first count them to ensure their number corresponds to the number of electors.
Then the first scrutineer opens a ballot, reads the name silently, notes it on a piece of paper and passes it to a second scrutineer, who does the same thing. The second scrutineer then passes it to the third scrutineer, who reads the name aloud. This is done with every ballot.
The revisers inspect the ballots for signs a cardinal may have voted twice. If a candidate has two-thirds of the votes plus one, he is elected pope. If not, the ballots are burned and a new vote starts. If no pope is elected after 28 ballots, the cardinals can vote for the top two candidates and elect a pope by simple majority.