Expert Answer Forum

Papal Elections QUESTION from Cynthia Middleton February 7, 2001 What is the significance of the white and black smoke used as part of the papal elections? How did this tradition originate?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on February 12, 2001 Dear Cynthia,
Before I address your question, let me provide some background information.
When the cardinals assemble in a conclave to elect a new pope, the balloting must be held in the strictest secrecy without any outside influence whatsoever. In order to make sure that the election is free from all outside influence and any possible corruption, the cardinals are absolutely forbidden any contact with anyone outside the conclave, which is traditionally held in the Sistine Chapel (this may have changed since Pope John II has changed the rules in 1996). To ensure secrecy, the grounds are searched by security teams for bugs and any kind of listening devices; no cardinals are allowed in or out of the voting area. Any cardinal who makes contact with the outside world is ejected from the conclave and may not participate in the vote.
When an election is in session, crowds normally gather in St. Peter's Square to await the announcement of a new pope. Since the cardinals cannot speak to the people to inform them of the status of the vote, the ballots are burned so that the smoke is given off by the chimney is either white or black.
White smoke signifies the election of a new pope; black smoke means the balloting continues. A candidate needs 2/3 majority to be elected; unless 30 rounds of voting have not produced a winner, in which case, a simple majority is sufficient. The black smoke, by the way, used to be created by adding straw to the ballots. Now a chemical is used to produce the same effect. It's not like you would find a lot of straw in urban Rome. :-)
Unfortunately, I was not able to trace the origins of the use of smoke during papal elections. However, I invite readers with information on this issue to submit it. It would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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