With over 4,000 journalists accredited to the Vatican (some figures put the number as high as 6,000) the papal conclave promises to produce saturation news across the world this week.
But for Romans the appointment with the new pope is part of the city’s history. The black or white smoke, the ringing of the bells, the race to St Peter's Square to see the new pope appear on the central balcony of the basilica are all part of Rome’s tradition.
“Ogni morte di papa” is an expression that means at its most basic “very rarely”. However these days the deaths of popes (or their resignation) come around several times in a lifetime.
In the last 60 years there have been six papal elections. The outcome of each has been a surprise but the ritual surrounding the election is well tried, with few modern trappings.
On Tuesday 12 March the 115 cardinal electors will be closed into the Sistine Chapel. They will no longer be allowed contact with the outside world until they have elected a new pope. All proceedings and votes are secret, on pain of excommunication.
All ballot papers are burnt at the end of the two morning and two afternoon voting sessions. The only sign to the outside world of what is going on are the smoke signals each day from the chimney that pokes out from the Sistine Chapel to the right of St Peter’s Square. Black smoke means the vote is still inconclusive and the signal will arrive at predetermined times, 12.00 and 19.00 each day, according to information from the Vatican press office. The white smoke to signal the election of the new pope might come at any time of the day. After the election of Pope Benedict XVI it appeared at about 15.00.
After the white smoke appears the church bells ring out across the city, starting with the peals of the one to the left of St Peter’s basilica. From that moment on there are about 30 minutes to get to St Peter’s Square. Priests, nuns, pilgrims, well wishers and the curious can be seen dashing through the streets to get to the square in time to hear the announcement of the name of the new pope and to see him appear in the central balcony of the basilica. For those who want the first glimpse of the new pontiff there is less than an hour from the sighting of the smoke to get to the square.
This time the appearance of the new pope could come any time from Thursday onwards. It is just possible that the cardinals will decide on the new pope by Wednesday but this seems highly unlikely considering the number of papabili going into the conclave.
Only one pope in modern times, Pope Pius XII in 1939, was elected in less than four ballots (three ballots in two days). It took 11 ballots (four days) to elect John XXIII, six ballots for Paul VI (three days), four ballots for John Paul I (two days), eight for John Paul II (three days) and four for Benedict XVI (two days).
If there is a pope by Wednesday then the cardinals will have been quick to make up their minds; a new pope by the end of Thursday would be normal. If no one has emerged by the end of Friday then it will be the longest conclave in 60 years.