By Keith Miller Senior foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/2/2005 6:00:51 PM ET 2005-04-02T23:00:51

NBC News Keith Miller, who has reported on the papacy of Pope John Paul II for many years, explains the ancient rituals that will now come to pass to mark Pope John Paul II's death.

What will happen next?
There is a system here that has been in place for a long, long time. This is an ancient and a massive bureaucracy presiding over basically a billion people.

What they have in place is to ensure the smooth transition of the church and more importantly, the smooth transition to the next leader.

Basically, they have it written in stone that upon the pope’s death, his funeral is to take place between four and to six days following his death.

There will be a funeral Mass conducted in St. Peter’s Square to allow the greatest number of people to attend in person. If the weather is extremely bad they would move it inside the basilica, but that is not expected.

The number of people that would attend would certainly exceed 100,000 people. St. Peter’s Square can hold that, and some more. There will be standing-room only.

That would be followed by nine days of mourning. That’s an official period of time of reflection, thinking back upon the papacy of John Paul II, and also thinking forward to where the Catholic Church and its flock are heading. 

What is the procedure for electing the next pope?
Then, perhaps the most important moment after the death of the pope will be the Conclave. The Conclave is the procedure for electing the next pope. That has to happen no less than 15 days, and no more than 20 days, after the death of the pope. That is nothing less than 15 days out of respect to the previous pope, and no more than 20 days, so there is no delay in the process.

We are really dealing with a worldwide church now, so that it also gives time for cardinals to come and assemble from across the earth.

At the moment, there are 183 cardinals, or as they call them, “Princes of the Church.” Out of that number, 117 are eligible to vote for the next pope. The eligibility is based strictly on age. Since this pope came into office, he passed a church law that no one over the age of 80 can vote. At the moment, there are 66 cardinals are over the age of 80. Some of them won’t be attending the Conclave, or will be coming to the Vatican, because they are also frail or in ill health, like the pope.

So, there are 117 electors that will be choosing the next pope.

One interesting thing about the Conclave is that the word actually means "locked up" in Latin. The idea is that you lock these men up until they make a decision. The reason they had this initially was that during the Conclaves of old, the churchmen would gather together in a palace somewhere and be very comfortable — they would be fed and housed rather luxuriously. So, they would never make a decision because they weren’t interested in going anywhere else.

At one point in Italy they ran on so long — for years — that residents of a local village where they were staying ended up tearing off the roof of the palace to expose the cardinals to the elements and forcing them to make a decision.

So, there is some logic behind this ancient ritual. The idea is to get them to get moving because the church is without a pope, without someone sitting on the throne of St. Peter. So, the Conclave is intended to push them along in that process as delicately as possible.

What happens with the actual voting and sending out a signal via a plume of smoke out of the Vatican?
After any inconclusive vote they burn the ballots in a fireplace and add a chemical which turns the smoke black. But, if in fact they have elected a pope, then they will also burn the secret ballots, but without the chemical, and the smoke will come from the Sistine Chapel as white. That will alert the city of Rome, and indeed the world, that we have a pope.

Mind you, there have been instances in the past on an overcast day that the white smoke has looked black and people have said, "Oh, we don’t have a pope." And on other days when it’s been a dark, cloudy day, the black smoke has looked white. So, it is not a particularly fool-proof method.

It is about 15 minutes after the smoke appears that an announcement would be made on who is the next pope.

One last thing that I think is fascinating is that once the pope is elected and his name has been revealed to the College of Cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel, he goes to what is called the “Room of Tears.” It is a room where they have a number of different-size cassocks for the newly elected pope to put on before he meets the people of Rome and the world.

They call it the “Room of Tears” because several times newly elected popes have entered there and broken down in tears, realizing the responsibility that they have and the enormous burden they have just taken on to represent God on earth.

For many it has proved too much emotionally, momentarily, but nonetheless, too much. Subsequently, this small cloister, off the Sistine Chapel is now known unofficially among the Vatican hierarchy as the “Room of Tears.”  

Keith Miller is an NBC News correspondent.


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