As we wait for the announcement of the new pope's identity, I can't help but remember the stories of medieval popes. Have you wondered what really goes on in the Sistine Chapel once those doors are locked? Have you ever mentally compared the election of the pope and the election of a US president? Is it possible that the cardinals have as many differences as other politicians?
I can't answer any of those questions, but let me describe for you one 12th-century papal election that always entertained my students. I won't name the popes, but in this particular election there were two leading candidates, each with a faction of passionate supporters. When the election finally settled on one of the two and white smoke rose from that very same chimney, it was a moment, like this one, when those outside held their collective breath. But inside the chamber, chaos reigned.
There are several steps a newly-elected pope must take. He must humbly refuse the honor, declaring that he is "unworthy." The electors must then reassure him that he is indeed the chosen one and that God will give him the strength he needs to fulfill the office. Once he accepts, he is formally dressed in the papal robes, and then he goes out onto that very same balcony to receive the acclamation of he crowds outside. Then he mounts his papal throne, and the deed is done.
In this instance, the elected pope declared, "I will not. I cannot. I am unworthy." And at that moment the number two candidate stepped forward, declaring, "He is unwilling, but I am not. I accept." Suddenly the two candidates both laid hands on the papal robe and engaged in a most undignified tug of war until the robe itself ripped in two. When #1 tried desperately to pull the pieces together around himself, #2 rushed to a spot where he had hidden another new papal gown. In his haste to be the first one dressed, he pulled the robe on backwards, so that the hood hung down in front. Then grasping behind his back to find a hood, he pulled the back of the gown over his head and rushed out onto the balcony -- with his undergarments displayed behind him.
The result of this ridiculous display was a papal schism. Candidate #2 claimed the Vatican and assembled his cronies around him. #2 fled for his life, accompanied by his supporters, and established a second papacy at Avignon. The election resulted in a church in chaos, and the split lasted for years beyond the lives of the two original combatants. (You can read more of the story in my "The Dilemma of Arnulf of Lisieux" by the way.)
Now, do you still wonder what's going on in that locked room?