During lunch at Hungry Jack's I read some of today's papers, now in tabloid size. In today's
the Religious Affairs writer, Barney Swartz has his take on the history of the papacy. I have deleted one section as it's very long. It's been a history of human fallibility despite the efforts of holier people to make decisions on the leadership of the Catholic Church..
Religion editor, The Age.
Fabian, a farmer, was visiting Rome in
January in the year 236 when a dove, the traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit,
settled on him. This would be a curiosity at any time but a papal election was
in progress and the people needed no further evidence. ''He is worthy,'' they
cried, and consecrated him a bishop instantly by acclamation.
Apparently the Holy Spirit really does
know best. Fabian, who governed for 14 years, was regarded as an able pope who
reorganised the church, helped to evangelise France and died a martyr under the
terrible persecution of Emperor Decius in 250.
The conclave today is ruled by ritual,
pomp and ceremony down to the finest details, but most of it is quite new by
the venerable history of the Roman Catholic Church. White smoke, for example,
dates back barely a century, while the Sistine Chapel has hosted the election a
mere 521 years.
In the early centuries, the ordinary
people of Rome chose the pope, then it was the clergy's choice approved by the
laity, then rival aristocratic families and crime gangs, and finally the
There is the delightful though no doubt
apocryphal story of England's first pope, John VIII, who had stomach cramps
while riding in procession from St Peter's to the Lateran in 855. The pope
dismounted and there on the cobblestones gave birth, before being lynched.
cardinals took control of electing popes in 1179 and introduced the two-thirds
majority rule, while the conclave (''with a key'') was introduced in 1241 after
a summer-long deadlock among the 12 cardinals who could get to Rome past the
Emperor Frederick's blockading army. Losing patience, the governor of Rome
locked them into a dilapidated building with a leaky roof through which the
guards urinated, and forbade the toilets to be cleaned.
After a threat from the lay Romans to
dig up the previous pope's body and have it make decisions, the cardinals chose
Celestine IV, the man who had most votes on the first day. No sooner had they
departed than, 17 days after his election, Celestine died. It then took 1½
years to elect his reluctant successor, Innocent IV.
But the longest interregnum, again
thanks to the intervention of imperial politics into the election, was the two
years and nine months it took to elect Gregory X in 1281, which led the secular
ruler first to remove the roof of the palace to concentrate their minds, then
to reduce their rations.
Few popes have written about their
election but one who did was Sienna's Enea Piccolomini, who became Pius II in
1458. He said the more powerful cardinals begged, promised, threatened, plotted
in the toilets and libelled and bribed each other. When a cardinal rose to give
the final needed vote, another grappled with him to stop him.
Meanwhile, when Pius' election was
announced, the citizens ransacked his house, taking everything down to the
marble blocks, and his attendants plundered his conclave cell. Then he was
almost killed en route to his coronation when the mob fought over who would get
More recent conclaves have been less
colourful - and shorter. The last conclave to take more than four days was 11
popes back, in 1831. Since 1922, when a cardinal's heirs sold his notes to a
newspaper, they have been secret. Cardinals and attendants vow to keep their
silence and are supposed to burn their notes when they leave.
A very 20th century development is
electronic sweeping and jamming around the Sistine Chapel, to stop
eavesdropping and leaking from inside. Whatever else has changed in 2000 years
of papal history, it is not human nature.