Sistine Chapel chimney
Plinio Lepri  /  AP
A special chimney was installed at the Sistine Chapel on April 15 to vent the smoke that signals the result of the day’s balloting. Surprisingly, the tradition of the white smoke is relatively new, making its first appearance in 1914, historian Fred Baumgartner discovered.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 4/19/2005 2:13:09 PM ET 2005-04-19T18:13:09

On the second day of the secret conclave, bells tolled and white smoke wafted over the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City as the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected a new pope. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was chosen as successor to Pope John Paul II, becoming the 265th pontiff.

In St. Peter's Square, thousands of the faithful who had patiently waited for that telling plume of smoke, a centuries-old tradition, majestic in its simplicity and symbolism, greeted the announcement with chants of “Viva il Papa!” — “Long live the pope!”

Of course, that “centuries-old” tradition is nothing of the sort:

  • There was no recorded use of a white smoke signal before 1914.
  • The bell was sounded for the first time this year to clarify confusion that struck onlookers when gray smoke burst forth in 1978.
  • Elections have frequently taken place outside Rome.
  • The gathered faithful have often been angry mobs.
  • And most contemporary conclaves have rarely lasted more than two or three days.

Clearly, the popular perception of how a pope is chosen — a process in which the church observes nearly 2,000 years of colorful but well-ordered pomp — is cherished but largely mistaken.

With this key ...
The Roman Catholic tradition of electing the pope in a conclave dates back roughly to the days of Geoffrey Chaucer. Like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” the tradition has taken clerics on a long and colorful journey, sometimes down the wrong side street, other times ambushed by politicians and warriors. Occasionally, it even works the way it’s supposed to.

The word conclave, from the Latin cum (with) and clavis (key), is a direct reference to the locked-down secrecy with which the church’s eligible cardinals — 115 of the 117 qualified at the moment — go about their business. Theoretically, this is the way they’ve been doing things since 1274, thanks to Pope Gregory X, who wrote new rules after his election took almost three years — and then only after disgusted citizens of Viterbo, the city north of Rome that at the time was the preferred residence of popes, tore the roof off the Episcopal Building and limited the 18 cardinals to bread and water.

For centuries afterward, things rarely went much more smoothly. Over the last millennium, popes have owed their elections to bribery, intimidation, military duress and imperial fiat.

For one thing, the supposedly secret deliberations rarely ever were. In 1549, for example, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, dispatched an intimidating message informing the assembled cardinals that his spies were so ubiquitous that he would know when they “urinate in this conclave.”

Dirty politics
In fact, the selection of the pope — the vicar of Christ, representative of the Prince of Peace — has been peaceful for only about the last century.

Pope Nicholas II decreed that only cardinals could choose the pope in 1059, seeking to stop outside interference. It didn’t work, as political families like the Crescentii, the Tusculani and the infamous Borgias assassinated unsuitable pontiffs, deposed others and engineered the elections of their successors.

Popes Callistus III, elected in 1455, and Alexander VI, his nephew, who was elected in 1492, were Borgias for real. It was Alexander who appointed his son Cesare Borgia, the pillager of Urbino, a cardinal.

It took 850 years for Nicholas’ reforms to take root: As recently as 1903, Franz-Joseph, the Austro-Hungarian emperor, vetoed the first choice for pope, and the result was Pius X.

Along the way, popes were effectively imposed by Holy Roman Emperors or controlled by shadowy string-pullers like Armand Jean Du Plessis, who as Cardinal Richelieu was the original eminence grise — the “gray eminence” behind the throne.

Dirtier popes
The dirty politics gave the church some pretty nasty popes:

  • Formosus, the excommunicated-but-later-restored cardinal who was elected pope in 891, had a tumultuous life and papacy. But his afterlife was even rockier.

Formosus scandalized many cardinals, including Stephen VI, his successor as pope, by agreeing to the installation of an illegitimate son of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. Upon taking office, Stephen dug up Formosus’ corpse and put it on trial.

Even though (constitutional scholars take note) Formosus did have counsel — a cleric whom Stephen appointed to speak for him — he was convicted, three of his fingers (the ones that bestowed blessings) were cut off, and he was dumped in the Tiber River.

Stephen, it should come as no surprise, was eventually assassinated.

  • Just a few years later, in 897, Sergius III conquered Pope Leo V’s forces and seized power, whereupon he had Leo strangled. He in turn was deposed by the antipope Christopher, but Sergius’ patrons revolted and invited him back in 904.

It has been alleged, though never proved, that Sergius ordered the assassinations of Christopher and another enemy, former Pope Leo V.

  • Pope Anastasius III was reputed to be his illegitimate son. Another presumed illegitimate son became John XII. His papacy was dubbed “the pornopacy.”
  • Sixtus V, who took office in 1595, was the first wholesale urban redeveloper. Until the end of the 19th century, when Italy became an independent country, the pope was also head of the Papal States, and as ruler, Sixtus destroyed hundreds of homes to build wide, luxurious streets.

When Sixtus died after five years, the official announcement noted that his passing was greeted with “universal jubilation and mutual congratulations of the entire population of the city of Rome.”

Not so Innocent
Then there was the comically, ironically named Innocent VIII. Giovanni Battista Cibo became pope in 1484 in one of the many elections of the Middle Ages that was menaced by competing mobs. By 1487, he had launched a real witch hunt: His “Malleus Maleficarum” (or “The Hammer of Witches”) inspired the great witch hunts that stretched through the 1600s, even though the Spanish Inquisition itself condemned the book.

Speaking of the Spanish Inquisition, it was during Innocent’s reign that the church’s torture-driven quest to covert Spain’s Jews and Muslims hit its stride. It was Innocent, in fact, who appointed Torquemada as grand inquisitor.

Innocent celebrated the surrender of the moors at the Spanish city of Granada in 1492 with parties and official celebrations, which included his acceptance of 100 Moorish prisoners as slaves, whom he apportioned out as gifts to his friends.

Innocent was known as the Father of Rome, but not for his beneficence or leadership. When he died in July 1492, he left behind as many as 16 illegitimate children.

(Information for this report is drawn from the official Catholic Encyclopedia; “Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election,” by John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter; “Lives of the Popes,” by the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame; “Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections,” by Frederic Baumgartner, a historian at Virginia Polytechnic Institute; and “The Bad Popes,” by historian Russell Chamberlin.)

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