The retirement of Benedict XVI on Feb. 28 marks the first time in nearly 600 years that a pope has decided to step down, which forces the Roman Catholic Church to begin the ancient election process known as "a conclave."

For centuries, the procedure of electing a new pope was simply called a "papal election." That was, until 1274, when the word conclave started being used instead.

Why?

Because the papal election of 1268 that ended with the choice of Pope Gregory X took a long time – two years and nine months, to be exact.

'Scandalous delay of the law'

pope-conclave9059

Papal elections, also known as conclaves, are ancient rituals that are closed off to the outside world. (Osservatore Romano/Associated Press)

The nearly three-year election was the longest in Roman Catholic history and beset with controversy, infighting and death, which bogged down the decision process. 

According to the Italian newspaper, Gazetta del Sud, the election took so long that three of the 20 cardinal-electors died during the process, and another resigned.

When Philip III of France and other rulers finally had enough of the infighting, they forced the cardinals to cede their authority to a committee of six. To speed the vote along, drastic actions were taken, including reducing food rations to bread and water and exposing the voting room to the elements by taking its roof off.

As a result, according to the New Advent's Catholic Encyclopedia (a respected source on Catholic history), "to avoid such scandalous delay of the law," Gregory X, approximately three years into his papacy, changed the election rules to ensure a speedier process.

New conclave rules included (according to New Advent):

  • All cardinals have to meet in a closed-off room with "no partition or hanging, and live in common."
  • No one is allowed to go in and out unobserved.
  • No one can talk to anyone unless other cardinals are present.
  • If there's no decision in three days, the cardinals get only one dish at their noon and evening meal time for five days.
  • If no decision is made after five days, they only get bread and water.

A lasting legacy

The Gazetta del Sud newspaper states that the word conclave comes from the Latin term "clausi cum clave," which means "closed up with a key" and refers to the fact that the cardinals are under lock and key while deciding their vote. 

The 1996 apostolic constitution, written by Pope John Paul II, reveals that many of the rules have largely remained the same.

Lasting legacies include:

pope-conclave95

The Holy See press office has said that Benedict will not take part in choosing his successor.

  • Secrecy: all forms of communication are prohibited, and a sweep of the Sistine Chapel for audiovisual equipment is done by technicians beforehand.
  • Exclusion: the Sistine Chapel remains "absolutely enclosed."
  • Punishment: breaking the rules results in excommunication.
  • Speed: although exact procedures vary, the Catholic Register reports that if no decision is reached in about two weeks, there may be a run-off between the two most popular candidates, where the winner is decided when he receives more than two-thirds of the vote from the other cardinals.

That is not to say that no new rules have been added to reflect the 21st century.

In the same constitution, John Paul II writes: "...the conclave is to continue in its essential structure; at the same time, I have made some modifications in order to adapt its procedures to present-day circumstances."

Present-day changes include:

pope-conclave-5463

Benedict's surprise announcement to retire has left people curious about how long the church will be without a pontiff. (Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

  • Food rationing: although rules are mixed, cardinals do not have their meals reduced if the decision process is stalled.
  • Break time: a break up to one day is given for prayer and informal discussion if voting lasts longer than three days.
  • Private living quarters: when not voting in the Sistine Chapel, the electors can stay within the Vatican City state (a place called a "modern guesthouse" that offers them both privacy and space, according to the Catholic Register).
  • Transportation: cardinals can take a bus to and from the Sistine Chapel.
  • On-site staff: two doctors must be present for emergencies, priests for confessions, and staff for cooking and cleaning.

A framework for success

Did Gregory X's strict rules change the election process for the better?

Judging from the length of conclaves since the rules were instituted, and despite some bouts of stalled decision-making (the conclave of 1775 lasted over four months, for example), the answer is yes – the rules were a resounding success.

The longest conclave since the beginning of 20th century:

  • Four days (the conclave of 1922).

The average length since the beginning of the 20th century:

  • Three days.

So it may not be surprising that experts like Yiftach Fehige, an associate professor at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, predict a three-day conclave this time around.

The only difference when a pope retires (opposed to dying) is that he "freely resigns" and that the resignation must be "properly manifested," said Fehige. In other words, Benedict XVI will have to do things like have his fisherman's ring melted down and give up the papal chamber within the Vatican Palace.

The website Catholic Online told worshippers not to worry about Benedict's retirement and the 2013 conclave:

"...the Church is fully prepared to handle circumstances such as these and that the long tradition of the church and the guiding hand of God will ensure that the church remains as a rock to all the faithful, as St. Peter, our first pope, was nearly two millennia ago."