A look inside the conclave that elected Pope Francis

Published March 15, 2013

Inside the conclave that elected Pope Francis

Cardinals take an oath of secrecy when they enter a conclave, promising never to reveal what goes on. But as is customary, some of the cardinals shared memories of their experience.


Reciting a hypnotic Gregorian chant, the 115 princes of the church filed into the frescoed Sistine Chapel and took their seats at four rows of tables. One used a wheelchair and was helped to his place by his colleagues. With a cry of "extra omnes" — "all out" — the massive double doors swung shut, the key was turned and the conclave was under way.


No matter how beautiful the chapel, Chicago Cardinal Francis George said, the acoustics aren't great. The presiding cardinal, Giovanni Battista Re, had to explain each step in the ritual twice, once to each side of the room.

Other than that, there was only silence. "The conclave is a very prayerful experience," said Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston. "It's like a retreat."

One by one, they held the paper aloft, placed it on a gold-and-silver saucer at the front of the room, and tipped it into an urn. And then the tallying began, with three cardinals reading out the name on each slip.

When they finished counting, it was clear the field remained wide open, said Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of the church in Ireland. "There were a number of candidates," he said.

A cardinal threaded the ballots together and put them in a stove. Outside in St. Peter's Square, as black smoke billowed from the chimney, the cheering crowd fell silent and began to thin.


The cardinals filed in again and repeated the ritual of voting. There were two votes before lunch, and the field was narrowing. But the smoke was black again, and the crowd was again disappointed. This time, however, they didn't leave the square.


O'Malley sat down beside Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. "He is very approachable, very friendly," he said. "He has a good sense of humor, he is very quick and a joy to be with." But with the vote going his way, Bergoglio was uncharacteristically somber.


The cardinals were getting close to a decision. But not quite. They started over, and the scrutineers read out the names. And it began to dawn on the men that their work was done. "It was very moving as the names were sounding out," Brady said. "Bergoglio, Bergoglio, and suddenly the magic number of 77 was reached." The cardinals applauded at 77, and again once the tally was complete. "I don't think there was a dry eye in the house," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, below.


A cardinal asked Bergoglio whether he accepted the papacy. "I am a sinner, but as this office has been given to me, I accept," he said, according to three French cardinals. Bergoglio announced the name he would assume — Francis, for St. Francis of Assisi — and went to change into the papal robes. When he returned to the chapel, "his first action was to go to a cardinal in a wheelchair and go to the back of the chapel to greet him," Brady said. Aides brought in a platform with a white chair for Francis to sit on as the cardinals came one by one to pay their respects. The pope declined, Dolan said. "He met with us on our own level."

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options


More than 100,000 people had jammed into St. Peter's Square, and Francis prepared to greet them from the balcony. Vatican workers lined up to shake his hand, but Francis was worried about a delay, Dolan said. There were too many people outside waiting in the rain, and he didn't want to keep them. As Francis stepped out on the balcony, cardinals rushed to the windows to look out over the crowd. It was nighttime, and George expected a "sea of umbrellas." Instead, he saw flashing lights of cameras across the square. "It looked like jewels," George said.


After the address, a car came to take the new pope to dinner, and buses for the rest of the cardinals. The car returned empty. "As the last bus pulls up, guess who walked out," Dolan said. Francis had dinner with the others. They toasted him, "then he toasted us and said, 'May God forgive you for what you've done,' " Dolan said. By the time the night was over, cardinals said, the new pope seemed comfortable in his new robes. "Last night, I think there was a peace in his heart," O'Malley said, "that God's will had been accomplished in his life."

Associated Press