White Smoke

On March 12, 2013 much of the world sat riveted as a papal conclave convened in Vatican City. Two weeks previously, Benedict XVI announced his resignation as leader of the Catholic Church; it was time for the Sacred College of Cardinals — tough admission standards — to elect a new Pope.

The conclave was established in 1274 under the reign of Gregory X, and its rituals have remained mostly intact since.

The cardinals arrive at the Sistine Chapel and are put up in hastily arranged dorm rooms. Each man is given a cell with a small bed, a small table and a small water basin. The bare-bones arrangements discourage dilly-dallying in the process of electing God’s new representative on earth.

Once the electoral process begins, cardinals gather to vote twice a day — once in the morning and once in the afternoon — and voting continues until a majority of two-thirds supports one person.

If the required two-thirds is not reached in a given round, the secret ballots are collected and burned together with wet straw, causing a dark stream of smoke to rise from the chimney. If, however, the cardinals achieve the mandated standard of agreement, the ballots are burned with dry straw, and a puff of white smoke emerges from the chapel.

In the last few conclaves, a chemical was added to the fire to decrease ambiguity in the colour of the smoke — a mild concession to the modern world.

Regardless, the appearance of white smoke causes pandemonium outside, as journalists and Catholic devotees alike spring into action — either praying and weeping, or phoning their editors and filing stories.

In rare cases, both.

On March 13, 2013 at approximately 7 p.m. local time the white smoke rose. It was official; Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was selected Pope. He took the name Francis.

The tradition of different-coloured smoke representing different results is my favourite part of the process. In an era tweets and trollers it is remarkable such an ancient medium of communication still has the power to instill awe and exaltation. Marshall McLuhan, himself a Catholic, would be proud.

In fact, I would humbly encourage the Church to use this powerful ritual more often.

With that in mind, I can’t imagine anything more wonderful, inspiring, and healthy for the entire community of Whitehorse than to see a cloud of white smoke rising from the roof above Vanier Catholic Secondary School — indicating new leadership at my alma matter.

Or maybe rainbow smoke is more appropriate.

Peter Jickling is a Whitehorse playwright and the assistant editor of What’s Up Yukon

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