At the Vatican a Vow of Silence Reigns – Until a Cardinal's Diary Is Found

Want details on the process for electing a new pope? Better wait for some Italian newspaper to gets its hands on a cardinal's diary.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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ROME – These aren't simple days for the 5,700 journalists covering the papal conclave. Since Tuesday afternoon the cardinals have been isolated behind the Sistine Chapel's doors – and special jamming equipment – under solemn vow not to reveal details on the process for electing the next pope. Despite the four rounds of voting every day and the chimney on the chapel's roof, there's no indication of what's going on there – not even when the voting might end.

After the white smoke finally rises over the Vatican and the new pontiff appears on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, the reporters who cover the Church year round, the "Vaticanisti," will start to dig for details. By how many votes was the pope elected? Who were his closest rivals? What wheeling and dealing went on between rounds?

Under the conclave's strict rules, reporters are never supposed to know. The cardinals' oath doesn't expire with the conclave but binds them until the end of their days. But the Vatican obviously doesn't trust its most exalted princes to hold their tongues – that's why there's all the jamming equipment and the searching of bags as the cardinals arrive to make sure no one is smuggling in a cell phone or laptop. But once the cardinals return home, only their word and the fear of God prevents them from revealing information.

In 2005, just days after Benedict XVI was elected, the Italian media was full of details on the number of cardinals who voted for him and his rivals in the various stages, though the numbers varied. Four months later, at least one Italian reporter claimed to have seen the diary of an anonymous cardinal that included accurate figures. The full details appeared only in 2011 when an Italian magazine published entire pages from a cardinal's diary.

The apparently coincidental discovery of a cardinal's diary enables the sources and the Italian reporters, all loyal Catholics, to publish while keeping the appearance of not directly breaking the vow of secrecy. Right now inside the Vatican, at least one cardinal is busy writing his diary that will one day find its way into the hands of the Italian media.

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A Swiss guard salutes, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, March 13, 2013.Credit: AP
Crowds outside the Sistine Chapel in St. Peter's Square, March 13, 2013.Credit: AP