A team of 40 workers is making everything ready for the Sistine Chapel when it hosts one of the most important events in the Catholic Church: the election of a new pope.
The team, officially called the “Floreria” is carefully following the pattern set in April 2005 when cardinals last gathered beneath Michelangelo’s masterpiece The Last Judgement on the altar wall of the chapel, and voted to choose Pope Benedict XVI.
Without knowing the precise date of the conclave, the team is racing against the clock to have every detail perfectly prepared for the 117 cardinals who will be shut up inside the fortress-like chapel until a new pope is found.
Benedict shocked the world when he announced on February 11 that he would resign the papacy on February 28.
Since a pope hasn’t resigned in roughly 600 years – most die in office – the unprecedented nature of this particular conclave has created some uncertainty.
Some say the pope is considering a temporary change to papal rules that would waive the requirement that the conclave cannot begin for at least 15 days after a pope’s departure.
If that happens, the conclave could begin sooner than the March 15, when many had expected the conclave to commence.
So, just in case the conclave is held early, the Vatican team working under Paul Sagretti, deputy director of the Floreria, is moving even more quickly.
“Until the date of the conclave, we live from day to day,” explains Sagretti, whose office is charged with organizing most major events inside the Vatican.
Even some furnishing that were used for the balloting that elected Pope Benedict XVI are being re-used. No detail is left to chance as the Floreria workers carefully follow photos taken from previous conclaves, so that everything is arranged inside the Sistine Chapel in precisely the same manner as in previous conclaves. That will include 117 chairs made of cherry wood for the voting cardinals, with seating assigned by place cards bearing the papal coat of arms, and 12 wooden tables covered with beige cloth and burgundy satin.
Six tables are placed on the right side of the chapel and six on the left, arranged in two rows of different levels. A 13th table is placed at front of the chapel, before the altar, where an urn is placed to contain used ballots as well as a Bible.
A wooden platform has been built about 60 centimetres above the Sistine Chapel floor, covered with a beige fabric, so cardinals won’t walk on the tiled floor of the chapel but instead are elevated to the level of the second step of the altar.
A velvet bag contains the ballots which each cardinal will draw come voting time.
Finally, two stoves have been connected inside the Sistine Chapel, so after a vote, ballots can been burned with a coloured chemical. The relatively rare white smoke indicates that the conclave of cardinals have reached a decision on who will head the Catholic Church.
Black smoke sends the signal that another vote must be taken.
According to Sagretti, recent conclaves have been much easier for the Floreria to organize than those in the past.
Until the 1970s, the Floreria also had to arrange all of the accommodations for the cardinals arriving from around the world.
Fortunately, with the construction of the residence of Santa Marta to house the cardinals, that task has been lessened.