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Posted April 12, 2005 at 12:27 p.m. CDT
Conclaves were once raucous and long

By Tom Roberts

When the cardinals go into the conclave next week, they will have spent more than a week poring over some 400 pages of instructions covering what is to occur during the voting process, including details on what to do if a non-ordained person is selected (no chance). They will also carry with them a 343-page text dealing only with the rituals for the conclave.

Little, it seems, is being left to chance and, once sealed away in the Sistine Chapel without cell phones or other means of communicating with the world beyond, there apparently will be little chance for influence from outside forces.

It wasn’t always so neat and tidy.

The history of the papal elections is laced with unsavory characters, hardball tactics, legendary stalemates and high-pressure lobbying by less than godly outside forces.

The recent events in Rome gave me occasion to pull off the shelf J.N.D. Kelly’s The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, a long-ago gift from a Jesuit acquaintance. A browse through the centuries makes clear that the Holy Spirit, however involved in the choice of leaders of this institution, has had to contend with more than a fair share of human interference, force and ingenuity.

The 13th century was a particularly riotous time for papal election shenanigans. Celestine IV, for instance, was only elected pope in 1241 after cardinals were shut in by a Senator Matteo Rosso Orsini (“effectively dictator of Rome”), who kept them in cruel and squalid conditions in a “crumbling palace known as the Septizonium.” The cardinals failed to reach a two-thirds majority on the first vote and were going to elect someone outside their ranks but Orsini deterred them with what Kelly describes as “brutal threats.”

“Worn out by harsh treatment, illness and the death of one of their colleagues,” the remaining cardinals, after 60 days, agreed on Goffredo, who became Celestine IV, a man so old and so ill that he died 16 days after election and, it is said, before he was ever installed as pope.

Apparently there was no conclave immediately because it took the cardinals 18 months  to negotiate the release of two cardinals who were being held prisoner by Emperor Frederick II. When it finally did occur, Frederick, who had been excommunicated by Gregory IX, Celestine’s predecessor, did everything he could to assure a sympathetic pope. It didn’t work. Innocent IV was apparently anything but what the name would imply. His tomb declares that “he laid low Christ’s enemy, the dragon Frederick.”

In those days, it appears, the cardinals went where the pope went, and when Innocent IV died in Naples, the cardinals wanted to return to Rome, but the mayor wouldn’t allow them to and “forced them to proceed to an election by bolting the city gates.”

They settled on Rinaldo, count of Segni, described as “gentle, indecisive and undistinguished.” He was also the nephew of Gregory the IX, who had promoted him quickly through the ranks. Holy nepotism. He became Alexander IV.

Not only was Alexander undistinguished, in his approximately 6 years in office, he saw fit to appoint no cardinals, so there were only eight remaining when he died.

As Kelly put it, “the meager conclave … debated vainly for three months” before electing an outsider, Jaques Pantaleon, patriarch of Jerusalem, who happened to be visiting the curia on church business. He became Urban VI.

The next conclave took four months to elect Clement IV. Pre-papacy he was Guy Foulkes, and he had been married and had two daughters. When his wife died, he became a priest and quickly was named a bishop and then cardinal.

The cardinals this year, we are told, will be in some of the most comfortable quarters in conclave history in the relatively new multi-million dollar Santa Marta residence. Things were different for the conclave of 1271, which elected Gregory X.

The electors were so divided, they “wrangled for almost three years about a successor.”

The public, however, got impatient and “civic authorities, to speed a decision, first locked them up,” then removed the roof of the building where they were meeting and finally “threatened a starvation diet.” That seems to have done the trick.

Popes didn’t live long in that century, so lots of conclaves were held, but few came off easily. Political, personal and family squabbles kept the gatherings of cardinals (small by today’s standards) at odds often for months at a time and resolution not infrequently came because of interference by outside forces.

One might argue that today’s secrecy does little to inspire trust in the proceedings, but we at least can be fairly certain a new pope will emerge before they block all the streets out of Rome, impose a starvation diet or, God help us, threaten to rip the roof off the Sistine Chapel.

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