Ten things you may not know about papal recruitment

You probably do know about the white smoke vs. black smoke, but here are 10 even odder facts about one of the highest profile recruitment processes in the world.

Ten things you may not know about papal recruitment

The papal recruitment process is somewhat renowned for its quirkiness.

For example, cardinals must be under 80 to vote, the new pope needs a two thirds majority to be elected and, most famously, black smoke signals failure to elect a pontiff while white smoke signals success. (Although did you know that the black smoke was once produced by burning wet straw along with the worthless ballots?)

These odd facts have sunk in, but there are some even stranger historical oddities related to papal recruitment.

Here are 10 favourites:

  • The papal conclave is the oldest continuous method of choosing a leader of any institution.
  • The ‘conclave’ (meaning, ‘with key’) has roots in the longest ever pope recruitment process. Beginning in 1268, the cardinals took nearly three years (33 months) to choose a pontiff due to political infighting.
  • During the papal election, the locals of Viterbo became so frustrated at the slow progress that they tore the roof off of the building where the cardinals were staying and locked them in to speed a decision – hence ‘conclave.’
  • Subsequently, in 1274, Pope Gregory X issued a decree stipulating that cardinals were only allowed one meal a day if they took more than three days to select a pope. After eight days they would only be given bread, water, and wine. (This rationing system has since been abolished.)
  • Until 1274, when the church instituted a waiting period of 10 days before the first vote, popes could be elected on the same day as his predecessor’s death. (The waiting period has since been stretched to 15 days to allow all the cardinals time to arrive.)
  • In 1503, Pope Julius II was elected within a few hours – the shortest ever conclave.
  • The youngest pope in the history of the office was Pope John XII who succeeded to the papacy in 955. He had a little help from his dad who fixed the election before his own death.
  • The oldest popes ever elected ascended the throne in the 12th and 13th centuries. Both 85, Pope Celestine III was elected in 1191 and Pope Celestine V in 1294.
  • Pope John Paul II, elected in 1978, was the first non-Italian pope to be elected in over 500 years. (His two successors have also hailed from elsewhere.)
  • Until recently cardinals stayed wherever they could find room in the Vatican; now they have fairly luxurious hotel-style facilities on site.


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