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The GOOD Guide to the Papal Conclave

This week's papal conclave has a vocabulary of its own. Here's our guide to all that Latin.

The Catholic Church will choose a new pope beginning today—and after a week of Rand Paul's shouting and Venezuela's (partial) mourning, the silence might be a welcome break. And by silence, I mean silence—apparently most of the voting happens during meditation.

It seems wild, but remember, this is the ceremony sparking banter about the 1500s. The journalist who broke Pope Benedict's resignation was able to do so because he understood Latin. Whether you wore slacks and button-ups to decades of Catholic school or you've only read The DaVinci Code, the conclave is a smoky mystery inside the Sistine Chapel, one of the art world's most famous spaces.


Catholic services were in Latin until 1969, remember, and some Church terminology is still pretty medieval. Refer to our dictionary for context while you're following this week's news.


1. The College of Cardinals. Cardinals are the highest priests in the Catholic Church, and they can be stationed anywhere in the world (You've probably read about LA's Roger Mahony recently). All cardinals younger than 80 can help elect the next pope, and 115 of them will do so this time. The president of the College is called the Dean, and he presides over the conclave and represents the Vatican publicly while it's underway.

2. The cardinal deacons are the lowest-ranking cardinals. Cardinal priests are middling cardinals and usually bishops of important dioceses. There are only six cardinal bishops, and they preside over six historic dioceses in Italy (Note: the cardinals don't have to be Italian). One of them serves as Dean.

3. A diocese is a district of the Church, and an archdiocese is a big diocese. LA is an archdiocese, so it's overseen by an archbishop. Cleveland is a diocese led by a bishop. A diocese is also called a See—so when reporters talk about the "Holy See" in reference to Rome, they mean the holy diocese, whose archbishop is the Pope.

4. Sede vacante, Latin for "vacant seat," is the period between papacies.

5. The General Congregation is the cardinals' daily pre-conclave meeting. These talks are secret, but the Vatican Press Office has been briefing reporters on them daily this year. Thus far, they've defined modern problems (e.g. "inter-religious dialogue, bioethics, justice in the world, a positive proclamation of love and mercy, especially remembering [Bl. John Paul II] in his teaching on mercy, and collegiality," according to Vatican Radio) and from there, talking about which cardinals might deal with them best as popes.

6. Pope Benedict XVI is the reason for the season. He was the Dean of the College of Cardinals under the previous pope (see #7), as well as his chief theologian, and was elected to the Papacy in 2005. People were shocked when he announced his resignation last month, becoming the first pope in about 600 years to do so.

7. Pope John Paul II preceded Benedict XVI. He was the first non-Italian pope since the 1500s (FYI, he was Polish). JP2, as my generation has nicknamed him, is famed for addressing young people: he started World Youth Day in 1984 and defined much of modern theology about sex.

8. Papal infallibility. It's important to note that not everything the new pope says will be perfect. The Church has a specific set of conditions for infallible statements, and they've only been made twice since the 1860s. On average, that's once every 75 years—so there's a good chance the new pope won't say anything that goes down as absolute dogma.

9. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was a three-year convention of bishops—2,600 in total—that modernized the church on basic tenets like the freedom of religion (which it now supports ardently) and celebrating church services in local languages instead of Latin (which are almost universal). Vatican II was long, transformative and pretty controversial, and it's the source of most modern Catholic theology.

10. Papal candidates, or “papabili.” There are dozens of lists of Benedict’s potential successors and they name dozens of different men. The next pope will almost definitely be one of the cardinals present at this week’s conclave. Church law doesn’t require the pope to be a cardinal first, but that’s nearly always the case. Plus, popes have been European since 741 AD, but since more than two-thirds of the world’s Catholics now live in Africa, Asia and Latin America, some think it's time to buck that trend.

11. Father Federico Lombardi is the director of the Vatican Press Office. If you see a statement attributed to him, it’s as official as it gets. Look for his weekly editorials.

12. Camerlengo Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is currently acting as head of state of Vatican City. (Your mind is jumping to Dan Brown's camerlengo, right? The one who (spoiler alert) set himself on fire and jumped off that basilica? Same title, but Bertone is as far as you can get from this guy). The rest of the Vatican administration will have to step down before the new Pope is chosen, but the Camerlengo manages its day-to-day affairs until after he’s installed.

Now that we've talked terminology, let's define the thing itself. The conclave, specifically, is the time the cardinals spend in the Sistine Chapel each day.

The Cardinals have elected the Pope since the beginning of the formalized Church around 400 AD. And since about 1270, they've done so in near-secrecy. In fact, every General Congregation—even the ones this week, before the conclave itself opens—starts with a vow of secrecy.

The General Congregation is the time for conversation. Once inside the Sistine Chapel, they vote four times a day by written ballot (twice in the morning, twice after lunch). Each of those votes is called a scrutiny. Before each scrutiny, each cardinal gets two ballots. Then, a junior Cardinal Deacon draws nine names of cardinals present: three act as Scrutineers, three as Infirmarii, and three as Revisers.

The cardinals bring their completed ballots to the Sistine Chapel altar and take an oath. Scrutineers collect ballots from cardinals who can't approach the altar, and Infirmarii visit cardinals confined to their rooms because of sickness. Then ballots are counted. If the right number were cast, the Scrutineers read the name on every ballot aloud.

Popes must be elected by a two-thirds majority. If that's not reached, or if the Revisers find an error in the counting, another scrutiny starts immediately. If there's no decision after the second vote, the cardinals burn every paper with a chemical that emits black smoke. After a lunch break, the second ballot (scrutinies 3 and 4) begins: the junior Cardinal Deacon chooses nine more facilitators, votes are read aloud, and after the second scrutiny, they're burned together. White smoke denotes a successful election, which is why you'll see cameras trained on the Sistine Chapel roof this week.

The new pope, whoever he'll be, isn't inheriting an easy Church. Accusations of sexual abuse and coverups by leadership are far too common, and some have suggested it's time for another Vatican council to deal with women's issues, like artificial birth control and female priests. The conclave reminds us how ancient Catholicism is. But the conversation about gender, race and language that surrounds it should reinforce its relevance.

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