The Vatican is officially on lockdown as the College of Cardinals makes final preparations for the papal conclave early next week—including countermeasures to prevent any leaks. The actual conclave has not started yet, but the discussions about it have, and they are supposed to be completely confidential. So when an Italian newspaper, La Stampa, published details of the private deliberations, the Cardinals were placed on radio silence and forbidden from talking to the media or doing any more press conferences until it's all over with.
While everyone knows about the secret ballots and white smoke in the Sistine Chapel, the real papal election is already taking place in hotel rooms and hallways, and at special cardinals-only congregations, where the assembled members gives speeches and lobby each other about the direction they want the Catholic Church go in. Those meetings will not only go a long way to deciding who actually becomes the next pontiff, they will shape the very operations of the Church for years to come.
The debate includes negotiations over the start of the conclave, which will be voted on later today. (Sort of like a cloture vote that ends the debate so the real vote can take place.) The delay gives the cardinals time to build consensus, which keeps the conclave from devolving into a never ending series of split votes. It also gives the Church time to clear the Sistine Chapel and its surrounding areas of listening devices, many of which were installed in response to the recent document leak scandal. (A Faraday cage is reportedly being installed to prevent electronic signals from going in or out.) The secrecy—and a quick vote—are seen as essential to Church unity. No one wants the new pope's tenure to begin under a cloud of in-fighting and challenges to his authority.
A Vatican spokesperson said the start date of the conclave will be announced around 7:00 p.m. local time on Friday, or 1:00 p.m. Eastern. It will probably start Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of next week, as the cardinals will not want to start on a weekend.
Until then, there will also be a lot of praying and yes, confession. Special spaces are set aside so that even during the conclave, the cardinals can confess to other priests, or even to each other. The business of religion doesn't stop, even for the business of the Church.
UPDATE: The Vatican has announced that the conclave will start on Tuesday, March 12. So we could have a new pope by the end of next week.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.