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Conclave underway as cardinals gather in Sistine Chapel to vote for next pope

The Sistine Chapel set up for the beginning of the conclave, at the Vatican. Cardinals will walk up to the main alter which is right below Michelangelo's painting of the "Last Judgement" and they drop the ballot into the urn in full view of the other cardinals. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho)

The 115 cardinals have made their way into the Sistine Chapel where they will begin the process of choosing a new pope.

This being the Catholic Church, there’s a grand ritual that goes into (the actual) voting for a pope.

“One by one they start at the back of the Sistine Chapel and walk up with their ballot in full view held up between their fingers,” explains Father Ray Cleaveland. “They walk up to the main alter which is right below Michelangelo’s painting of the “Last Judgement” and they drop the ballot into the urn in full view of everyone. They make this oath as they put the ballot in – something like ‘may the Lord Jesus, abandon and condemn me, if this person that I’m voting for is not the best according to my conscious.’ Basically, they’re taking it pretty seriously.”

Cleaveland is the pastor of Seattle’s Christ The King Parish, and he’s spent a number of years in Rome. He says the layout of the Sistine Chapel encourages solemnity.

“The whole time they are looking at Michelangelo’s depiction of the last judgement – where you’ve got this central figure of Jesus, who looks something like Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, right arm raised in judgement. He’s sending a few people, including a few cardinals, off to the right side of the painting. All of this is to remind the cardinals that this is serious stuff. Don’t mess with God.”

And once all 115 ballots have been collected, he says, “Then there are three cardinals who come up in front. And then in full view they just read off the names. At that point, a lot of the cardinals will take out these scorecards and keep track like they’re keeping track at a sports game. They’ll read off ‘Smith, Smith, Smith, Jones,’ and they’re just counting. The threshold is two-thirds. You need a two-thirds super majority. The magic number is 77 votes.

“Now think about that. Think about how hard it is for Congress to override a presidential veto.”

By the way, the smoke signal business – black for no decision, white for a new pope – that tradition is all about secrecy. The cardinals don’t want any surviving record so all ballots are burned after each vote.

So do cardinals campaign? Not for themselves, but campaigns do happen. For instance, Pope John Paul II.

“The night before the conclave started, somebody, it wasn’t him, somebody went around to every cardinal’s room and put a copy of his book on the door step, so that they could read and say, hey this guy’s got the chops to do the job,” says Cleaveland. “So I’d say it’s not really campaigning where the candidate is promoting himself, but you’re going to have groups or nationalities or continents who say – this is our man and I think he would be good.”

Father Cleaveland says there’s no frontrunner this time out. As many as five to ten cardinals are in contention. The Italians always have a good shot, and he says the African cardinal from Ghana and the cardinal from the Philippines are definitely in the running. Most surprisingly, he says a couple of Americans are also considered possibilities.

“(One is) Cardinal O’Malley from Boston. Really, the Italians think highly of him because he’s a Franciscan and St. Francis was Italian and the Italians love the Franciscans. And because he was the man that John Paul II
sent into Boston to really purge and clean up the whole sexual abuse scandal. And he’s done a good job of that, as far as I know.

“The other American who is getting a lot of buzz is the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Tim Dolan. He is this beer drinking, cigar smoking, back slapping Irishman who can work a room as well as any politician. He’ll remember your name, he’ll tell a joke and make you laugh. He’s got a joyful spirit and the Italians really like him – so those are two Americans that are getting a lot of buzz.

Personally, Cardinal Dolan sounds like an Irish version of Tony Soprano but I don’t think Father Cleaveland, or Cardinal Dolan for that matter, would appreciate that comparison.

But is Father Cleaveland himself allowed to have a rooting interest?

“Yes, I don’t have a vote but I guess I’m rooting privately for Cardinal Dolan of New York. I think it would be a great thing for the church in America to have an American Pope. I think he’s got a number of excellent qualities. But as I said – I don’t have a vote and whoever the man is who walks out on the balcony of St. Peters will be the man I really wanted in my heart of hearts. I wanted him all along.”

Finally, on a more serious note, Cleaveland says he doesn’t think any of the candidates really want it. It’s a burden and responsibility the selected cardinal will take on but more out of a sense of duty than ambition.

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