The Election of A Pope – Rome, Italy

The interval between the close of one pontificate and the commencement of another is a period of some excitement, and necessarily of much anxiety. Time is required for the electors to assemble, from distant provinces, or even foreign countries; and this is occupied in paying the last tribute of respect and affection to the departed Pontiff. His body is embalmed, clothed in the robes of his office, of the penitential color, and laid on a couch of state within one of the chapels in St. Peter’s, so that the faithful may not only see it, but kiss its feet. This last act of reverence to the mortal remains of the immortal Pius VIII., the writer well recollects performing.

These preliminaries occupy three days; during which rises, as if by magic, or from the crypts below, an immense catafalque, a colossal architectural structure, which fills the nave of that basilica, illustrated by inscriptions, and adorned by statuary. Before this huge monument, for nine days funeral rites are performed, closed by a funeral oration. For the body of the last Pope there is a uniform resting-place in St. Peter’s—a plain sarcophagus, of marbled stucco, hardly noticed by the traveler, over a door beside the choir, on which is simply painted the title of the latest Pontiff. On the death of his succcssor it is broken down at the top, the coffin is removed to the under-church, and that of the new claimant for repose is substituted. This change takes place late in the evening, and is considered private. I can not recollect whether it was on this or on a subsequent occasion that I witnessed it with my college companions.

In the afternoon of the last day of the novendiali, as they are called, the cardinals assemble in a church near the Quirinal palace, and walk thence in procession, accompanied by their conclavisiti, a secretary, a chaplain, and a servant or two, to the great gate of the royal residence, in which one will remain as master and supreme lord. Of course the hill is crowded by persons lining the avenue kept open for the procession. Cardinals never before seen by them, or not for many years, pass before them; eager eyes scan and measure them, and try to conjecture, from fancied omens in eye, or figure, or expression, who will shortly be the sovereign of their fair city, and, what is more, the Head of the Catholic Church from the rising to the setting sun.

Equal they pass the threshold of that gate; they share together the supreme rule, temporal and spirtual; there is still embosomed in them all the voice yet silent, that soon will sound, from one tongue, over all the world, and the dormant germ of that authority which will soon again be concentrated in one man alone. Today they are all equal; perhaps tomorrow one will sit enthroned, and all the rest will kiss his feet; one will be sovereign, the others his subjects; one the shepherd, and the others his flock.

While we have been thus sketching, hastily and imperfectly, one of many who passed almost unnoticed in the solemn procession to conclave, on the 2d of September, 1823, we may suppose the doors to have been inexorably closed on those who composed it. The conclave, which formerly used to take place in the Vatican, was on this occasion, and has been subsequently, held in the Quirinal palace. This noble building, known equally by the name of Monte Cavallo, consists of a large quadrangle, round which run the papal apartments. From this stretches out, along a whole street, an immense wing, its two upper floors divided into a great number of small but complete suites of apartments, occupied permanently, or occasionally, by persons attached to the Court.

During conclave these are allotted, literally so, to the cardinals, each of whom lives apart, with his attendants. His food is brought daily from his own house, and is examined, and delivered to him in the shape of “broken victuals,” by the watchful guardians of the turns and lattices, through which alone anything, even conversation, can penetrate into the seclusion of that sacred retreat. For a few hours, the first evening, the doors are left open, and the nobility; the diplomatic body, and in fact all presentable persons, may roam from cell to cell, paying a brief compliment to their occupants, perhaps speaking the same good wishes to fifty, which they know can be accomplished in only one.

After that all is closed; a wicket is left accessible for the entrance of any cardinal who is not yet arrived; but every aperture is jealously guarded by faithful janitors, judges and prelates of various tribunals, who relieve one another. Every letter even is opened and read, that no communications may be held with the outer world. The very street on which the wing of the conclave looks is barricaded and guarded by a picket at each end; and as, fortunately, there are no private residences opposite, and all the buildings have access from the back, no inconvenience is thereby created.

While conclave lasts, the administrative power rests in the hands of the Cardinal Chamberlain, who strikes his own coins during its continuance; and he is assisted by three cardinals, called the “Heads of Orders,” because they represent the three orders in the sacred college, of bishops, priests and deacons. The ambassadors of the great powers receive fresh credentials to the conclave, and proceed in state, to present them to this delegation, at the grille. An address, carefully prepared, is delivered by the envoy, and receives a well-pondered reply from the presiding cardinal.

Twice a day the cardinals meet in the chapel contained within the palace, and there, on tickets so arranged that the voter’s name can not be seen, write the name of him for whom they give their suffrage. These papers are examined in their presence, and if the number of votes given to any one do not constitute the majority, they are burned, in such a manner that the smoke, issuing through a flue, is visible to the crowd usually assembled in the square outside.

Some day, instead of this usual signal to disperse, the sound of pick and hammer is heard, and a small opening is seen in the wall which had temporarily blocked up the great window over the palace gateway. At last the masons of the conclave have opened a rude door, through which steps out on the balcony the first Cardinal Deacon, and proclaims to the many, or to the few, who may happen to be waiting, that they again possess a sovereign and a Pontiff.