This year, 2005 A.D., saw an election of a new pope and traditionally, when white smoke billows forth from the chimney over the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy, it is a signal that the Sacred College of Cardinals has elected the next pontiff. Thousands upon thousands of onlookers gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City in April following the death of Pope John Paul II in order to witness the earliest signs of white smoke and capture the first sight of the new pope. News camera from around the world had their “ChimneyCam’s” all focused on the one chimney over the Sistine Chapel, waiting for the first sign of white smoke to beam across the universe the news that Catholics had a new leader. As evidenced, this was no ordinary smoke signal.
Steeped in over two thousand years of history and tradition, the Catholic Church is most likely awash in many misunderstood or unknown practices. There are reasons behind every gesture and action the Church undertakes but sometimes the meaning behind them escapes common knowledge of the faithful and the general public.
Perhaps this is one of those least understood traditions in the history of the Church. Why a smoke signal in the first place and how did this tradition begin? The meaning of the phrase “white smoke over the Vatican” deals directly with the announcement, or signal in this case, that a new Holy Father has just been selected in Rome. When a pope dies, a new one is chosen from the among the Sacred College of Cardinals during the secret conclave, which must begin no later than eighteen days after the expiration of the reigning Pontiff. Those cardinals are sequestered in the conclave (literal meaning is “with a key”) and proceed to cast their votes for a new pope by using paper ballots. Since the process is closely guarded and no outside communication is allowed by the cardinals during the conclave, smoke is used as a signal to let the public know the outcome of the balloting.
Following papal tradition, after the cardinals cast their vote, the ballots are burned and the smoke goes out into St. Peter’s Square through a special chimney in the Sistine Chapel. If no new pope has been chosen, wet straw is mixed with the ballots and burned, which produces black smoke. However, if two-thirds of the cardinals reach consensus on a new pope, the ballots are burned with dry straw which produces white smoke, announcing to those gathered in the square that a new Holy Father has been chosen (“Papal Traditions”, USCCB). The straw has since been substituted for chemicals.
What did they do without TV, the Internet, or smartphones?
In today’s modern world of the Internet, cell phones, and other instant communications, one can know immediately when a new pope has been selected. However, a thousand years ago, the general public was not so blessed. When a new Holy Father was chosen in Rome, the word was spread strictly through word of mouth. Vatican historian Ambrogio Piazzoni explains it this way: “… [the Vatican] would just tell the town criers who would run through the city spreading the news that there was a new pope. The people would then rush to St. Peter’s and wait for the pope to come out onto the balcony for his first address” (Reuters, 4/19/05).
This seems very simple but as cities expanded and Catholics all over the world grew in number, there probably weren’t enough townspeople to go yelling through the streets! Actually, Italy’s unfortunate history as a battleground for various invasions and eventual unification led to smoke being used to announce the new pope. In 1870, forces trying to unify Italy captured Rome and scaled down the Papal States to what is known as Vatican City today. An offended Pope Leo XII, the next pope to be elected after the battle, decided to snub the Italians and gave his papal address inside the Vatican instead of on the balcony of St. Peter’s. Ambrogio Piazzoni explains: “They felt they were prisoners of Italy and didn’t want to recognize the violence suffered. But they had to tell the world it had a new pope so they invented this system of lighting a fire and letting the smoke speak.”
White and Black Smoke Appear
As stated earlier, the Catholic Church is steeped in tradition. As so, this tradition of using smoke signals to announce the election of a new pope stuck. Since the process is clothed in intense secrecy and subject to political ramifications, Pius X decreed that once the votes had been counted, they would be burned to avoid outside influence and scrutiny.
The white smoke first appeared in 1914 with the election of Pope Benedict XV when the cardinals set up the white/black smoke color scheme (Miami Herald, 4/18/05). After Pope Pius X, who was elected in 1903 and died in 1914, declared that the ballots would be burned to preserve secrecy, the cardinals in 1914 decided that black smoke would signal an inconclusive conclave vote and white smoke would announce the good news of the election of a new pope.
This was also good news for the media and the public in general as everyone could get a first-hand look at the events unfolding in Rome during the conclave. In the long history of the Church, using smoke signals is a relatively new concept. However, there is another facet to the announcement of the new Holy Father in Vatican City. A longtime archivist in the Vatican Secret Archives, Monsignor Charles Burns, had this to say to journalists in April 2005 during the conclave regarding smoke signals:
“The whole question of the smoke, that might sound crazy to a lot of you, too. You see, the idea of the smoke was this, that it gave a signal to the gunner on the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo. And when he saw the white smoke, he fired the cannon and the people of Rome knew the pope’s elected, and they would all rush to acclaim him in St. Peter’s Square. So there’s a lot of meaning behind it.”
For geographical reference, Castel Sant’Angelo is very near to St. Peter’s Square so the gunner probably did have somewhat of a clear view of the smoke over the Vatican. Unfortunately, Monsignor Burns give no indication when this tradition started.
But the Vatican Isn’t Perfect
A question of smoke, as Monsignor Burns states, is the signal the entire world focuses on during the conclave. However, even the Vatican is not perfect and there have been problems with this method from time to time. Most notably is the problem of gray smoke over the Vatican – neither black nor white, signaling nothing but confusion. Sometimes the straw didn’t catch fire and the patrons of St. Peter’s Square are left staring at the sky wondering what is going on.
In 1978 cardinals solved this problem, for the most part, by substituting a small vial of chemicals for the wet or dry straw in order to produce the right color of smoke (USCCB). Pope John Paul II was not quite convinced of this solution and in 1996, among other changes to the conclave, added the decree that the Vatican bells would ring when the new pope had been chosen. Thankfully, with the election of Pope Benedict XI, there was both white smoke and the Vatican bells to successfully and affirmatively announce the new pontiff.
Smoke signals v. Modern Technology
The media frenzy surrounding the election of Pope Benedict XVI reached epic proportions as major TV stations had rented out “chimney-view” apartments for years with unobstructed views of St. Peter’s and were prepared for those first wisps of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel. In this period of time though there were no town criers and no gunners. The media was left with seemingly obscure technology to announce one of the most important events of the time:
“The conclave, moreover, offered the ultimate clash between modern technology and ancient Roman Catholic ritual – and 21st century television thrives on it. Why else would a Roman Curia capable of announcing the death of John Paul II by text message let the cameras of the world divine that a new pope had been chosen by reading smoke signals and chimes.”
As far as the rituals of the Catholic Church are concerned, the history of the white smoke over the Vatican is not as much exciting as it is practical, or was practical at the time it was entered into tradition. There were never any canons or doctrines on such practices. It just seemed practical at the time and has since evolved into an exciting ritual watched by millions around the world.