OBJECTS AND STORIES – The Ballot of the Papal Conclave, 2013

Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the Museum around the cabinet that holds the conclave ballot

OBJECTS AND STORIES – The Ballot of the Papal Conclave, 2013

It was March 13, 2013. The world awaited with baited breath for the new successor of St. Peter. Storm clouds gathered around the Vatican as thousands of rain-soaked tourists and faithful, huddled under multi-coloured raincoats and ponchos, in prayer and patience. All eyes were fixed on the humble four-foot chimney, first used in 1939 to elect Pope Pius XII, now charged by the weight to reveal the new Pope. This time, the audience hoped not for an audible Noooo.

At 7:06 pm, Roman Time, the sombre setting erupted to a new-found joy! The chimney spewed billows of white smoke and the bells of the Vatican pealed in jubilation! We now had a Pope. But who? A hundred-thousand eyes turned to the red draped windows of the loggia of St. Peter’s, tinged with hope. The cool atmosphere was thick with suspense.

The French Cardinal Protodeacon, Jean-Louis Tauran appeared on the balcony with those famous feverish words – “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam!” (I announce to you with great joy WE HAVE A POPE!). A page in history turned as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, stepped out of the wings as Pope Francis I.

Seven years later, a little cabinet at the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, still stands tall in memory of these unforgettable moments. Within the cabinet are placed a series of souvenirs graciously donated by H.E. Oswald Cardinal Gracias who participated in the 2013 Conclave. The most significant among them is the unused ballot which delicately reminds us of the process of the Papal Election.

The word Conclave is derived from the Latin words ‘cum clavis’ meaning ‘with a key’. It signifies the assembly of the College of Cardinals below the age of 80, summoned for the canonical election behind closed doors. The Conclave begins with the Mass for the election of the Pope. In the afternoon, the Cardinals walk in procession from the famous Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel chanting in unison the Litany of the Saints and imploring the Holy Spirit for help.

Under the watchful eyes of the Michelangelo’s Christ, every Cardinal pledges his fidelity on the book of the Gospel. Then Master of the liturgical ceremonies cries ‘Extra Omnes’, Latin for ‘all out’. As the doors of the Sistine Chapel close, a new door of faith opens and the Cardinals begin the ballot session.

The ballot is a simple rectangular paper. Printed upon the upper half are the words ‘Eligio in Summum Pontificem’ (I elect as Supreme Pontiff). The name of the candidate is legibly written in disguise in the space below and the paper is folded twice. Each Cardinal then walks to the altar, holding up his folded ballot, pronouncing, ‘I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.’ He places the ballot on a paten and then slides it into an urn.

Nine Cardinals are chosen at random to officiate and organise the votes. The ballots are mixed, read aloud and counted. Each paper is pierced with a needle through the word ‘Eligio’ thus placing all ballots on a single red thread.  These are then burned in the Chapel stove along with a chemical to produce either the black or white smoke. A two-third majority is needed for the success of the election.

Reminiscing the great success of the 2013 Conclave, H.E. Oswald Cardinal Gracias in an interview said: ‘Being in the conclave has been almost like being in a retreat, alone with God…it was not a social gathering. It was not a business gathering either, nor was it an executive committee meeting trying to plan something. Rather, it was trying to open oneself to God, to see what God wants…I am humbled by the fact that I was God’s instrument in this choice…The Holy Father was sitting practically opposite where I was seated…my first comment to him (post-election), when we went to express our obedience, was: “We love you. India loves you. Bless India.” And I told him, “Most Holy Father, your name has impressed me personally so much. The whole program is there in the name.” His reaction was, “Greetings to India, warm greetings to India!”’


Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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