Bells peal at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome following the beatification of Blessed John Paul II. (Christopher Gunty | CR Staff)
Smoke and bells to signal new pope
February 21, 2013
By Christopher Gunty
Traditionally, white smoke emerges from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to signal the election of a new pope. To enhance the certainty of the announcement, for the conclave held after the death of Pope John Paul II, the ringing of the large main bell on St. Peter’s Basilica was added.
But not everything always goes according to plan.
For the conclave, a stove is installed in the chapel, home to great works of art seen by millions of visitors a year. Decades ago, wet straw was added to the ballots of an unsuccessful election for the pontiff, in order to turn the smoke a dark color. But that was not precise enough, so in recent conclaves, instead of straw, different chemical packs are added to the ballots to create either black smoke for “no new pope” or white smoke for “we have a pope.”
In 2005, though, according to John Thavis in “The Vatican Diaries,” at times the stove was not hot enough for the chemical packs to ignite before the ballots were burned, so the smoke was an indiscriminate gray. After the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict, the smoke was not clearly white or dark, and on top of that, the bells, which should have confirmed the election, were not ringing either.
At first, the archbishop attending to the newly elected pope had forgotten to alert the bell-ringer. No phones are allowed in the conclave, so he told an assistant to tell the Swiss Guard at the door to send the alert.
“Find a telephone,” the assistant ordered the guard. “Tell them to ring the campanone (the large main bell). Habemus Papam.”
But as the message worked its way to the bishop in charge of the building of St. Peter’s and all its workmen and eventually to the sampietrino waiting in the bell tower for the signal to ring the bell, it was delayed by a wait for confirmation. They couldn’t ring the bell just on the word of a Swiss Guard, could they? What if they were wrong?
Bells are often rung at St. Peter’s, at noon and 6 o’clock, so all around Rome, tones can be heard pealing from the hundreds of churches. Therefore, at times, people in the square heard a bell and thought it was an announcement, when it was just a normal bell.
Click to listen to the bells of St. Peter's.
So when Benedict XVI was elected, in addition to the problems with the color of the smoke, there was no concurrent sound from the bell. Eventually, the smoke became more distinctly white, and the bells eventually pealed from the tower, and a short while later, Pope Benedict XVI was introduced to the throngs in the square and watching from around the world.
Will the color of the smoke be easier to see this time? Will the bells ring out? Who will emerge onto the balcony above St. Peter’s as the next pope? We’ll find out in the coming weeks.
Copyright (c) Feb. 21, 2013 CatholicReview.org