The Papal conclave: An election like no other

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White smoke from the chimney on top of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel when Benedict XVI was elected new pope in 2005
White smoke from the chimney on top of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel when Benedict XVI was elected new pope in 2005 Photo: ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images

After a stormy time at the Vatican, this morning there is bright sunlight over St Peter's as it prepares for an election like no other on earth.

On my iPad stored in my documents, are research notes on last November's US election. There are pages on the swing states, the candidates' polling figures among soccer moms, Latinos, blue-collar males...there are coloured maps of America giving an instant snapshot of the state of the states, worm polls of the presidential debates. Details on the candidates' wives. Notes on the exit polls.

For this week's election in Rome, for one of the most prominent positions on the planet, touching the lives of 1.2 billion men and women - there is precisely none of the above. Just a list, seemingly in constant flux, of around a dozen candidates for the next Pope - or Papabile as they are known.

Cardinals attend a prayer at Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican last week
Cardinals attend a prayer at Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican last week Credit: Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM

The media is desperately trying to frame the vote in terms of the elections we are more used to. Catholic newspaper 'The Tablet' produced a Venn diagram matching candidates to the key issues: Charisma, Global Fluency and Governance. Three names magically appear at the centre suggesting they have all three qualities (Cardinals Scola of Italy, O'Malley of the US and Schonborn of Austria). The Economist tries to define a candidate as big business might choose a CEO. The Guardian characterised the competing factions within Conclave as the barbarians versus the Romans.

Online you can take part in a Fantasy Conclave League - or have a Cardinal picked for your support on your behalf on AdoptaCardinal.org. - or play The Papal World Cup.

Under sunny skies fire-fighters set up the chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel ahead of the cardinals conclave
Under sunny skies fire-fighters set up the chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel ahead of the cardinals conclave Credit: ABACAPRESS.COM

But however hard the media tries to frame the vote - today it will be locked out. The Cardinal electors' ballot is as much about the spiritual as the political. The arguing, the venom, the anger, the cajoling will stop this afternoon as they enter the awesome Sistine Chapel where all ties to the outside world will cease. Silence will prevail. Michelangelo's 'The Last Judgement' will weigh heavier on their minds perhaps than ever before.

All we will be able to do is to watch the chimney for the smoke - and wait for the answer, blowing in the wind.