We are fascinated by an election of a new pope. It is told in visuals—black smoke rising from the roof of the Sistine Chapel to signal that the 115 Cardinals, in crimson vestments, failed to agree on a new pope during the first day of the papal conclave. The meaning of this? The smoke was created by the burning of ballot papers used by the cardinals in their deciding vote, with chemical cartridges being added to ensure the smoke did not appear to be white — the sign that a decision has been reached. None of the 115 cardinals will be seen or heard, nor will they have any contact with the outside world, until they have chosen a successor to Benedict XVI, who abdicated on Feb. 28.
Why the secrecy? Behind closed doors. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists waited in line to get inside St. Peter's Basilica for a special pre-conclave Mass with the cardinals. One of the many stories spun by throngs of media tells of the curious and faithful, such as Lois Girten, 55, from Austin, Texas, who was among those waiting in line to get inside the pre-conclave Mass. "It’s in the air! You really feel it," said Lois Girten, 55, from Austin, Texas, who secured a last-minute place on a two-week pilgrimage to Rome through a cancellation. "It’s God’s gift that I’m in Rome just as the conclave takes place. I’m almost speechless with excitement, it’s a real treat for me." (See “Black smoke rises from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday” by Alastair Jamieson, Staff writer, NBC News, March 13, 2013)
For weeks after Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement on February 11 that he would abdicate, we have witnessed the crowds and media congregate in Vatican City. They crowd together to watch the colorfully costumed Swiss Guard and in turn the 130 man Vatican police force watches the crowds. Why do pilgrims come and wait in line or en mass seem hypnotized by the Swiss Guard protection of the pontiff? What are we witnessing? We see the opulence and grandeur of the Cathedrals in Vatican City and priest-led rituals of the masses.
Most of us simply are interested in the story of election that is being played forth—to finally see black smoke replaced by white. But what is behind the smoke? Cultural anthropologists and psychologists might link such attraction to more than our curiosity as to what is back of the walls and closed doors of the papal residence. It is more than a desire for information about what’s back of the closed-door secrecy; it’s a hunger for certainty about the biggest uncertainty. The Catholic Church promises certainty. It claims to know the answers to from whence we came and to where we will go after this life. In this it is not different from other religions. They too have mass pilgrimages and rituals that demand submission to those who declare they know.