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How To Pick A Pope (With Latin Subtitles)

Black smoke rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel on April 18, 2005. Black smoke signaled that the cardinals sequestered inside had failed to elect a new pope, after the death of Pope John Paul II.
Alessandra Tarantino
Black smoke rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel on April 18, 2005. Black smoke signaled that the cardinals sequestered inside had failed to elect a new pope, after the death of Pope John Paul II.

For lovers of the lapsed language Latin, the selection of a new pope is an ecstasyfest.

The Roman Catholic Church is so steeped in centuries-old traditions, Pope Benedict XVI announced his surprise retirement on Monday the old-fashioned way — in Latin.

"Fratres carissimi," the Pope's retirement announcement began. Beloved brothers ...

And so begins a month or so of global attention on the Vatican — the epicenter of the Catholic Church — and the moribund language that is spoken behind its walls.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Latin as a spoken language pretty much faded away.

But with the selection of a new pope in the news, long-forgotten Latin words and phrases will be returning to popular parlance for a brief period — until the pontiff is chosen. And then the Latin patter will be, once again, isset cum ventus — gone with the wind.

"To see a bit of history made in Latin today is thrilling," says Tara Welch, associate professor of classics at the University of Kansas. "The thrill is all the stronger because the pope is using the traditional language of the church to do something absolutely unprecedented" in modern memory.

She adds, "As a Roman might say, 'Mehercule!' "

If the Vatican follows tradition, NPR reports, it will bring a conclave of cardinals together in mid-March to choose a new church leader. But as the pope himself is showing us, nothing is certain anymore.

Fitting that Latin should be the official language of the church and its rituals. The more mysterious the process, it seems, the stranger the vocabulary. And earthly processes don't get much more mysterious than picking a new pope.

By focusing on the unusual verbiage, maybe we can begin to understand how it works. Here, then, is a glossary of words and phrases we may hear in the coming month.

Cardinal: The word — we're not talking about the songbird, here — comes from the Latin cardinalis, meaning "chief, essential, principal." In the Roman Catholic Church, the cardinals are higher-echelon officials in the church's governance. To begin the selection, the cardinals, led by a president known as the dean, will gather — from all over the world — in Rome. They will convene in the Sistine Chapel, where the balloting will take place.

Conclave: The word, according to American Catholic, comes from the Latin phrase cum clavis, which means "locked with the key." In this case, the cardinals are locked away in the Vatican, held hostage by their bounden duty until a new pope is chosen.

Eligo in summum pontificem: For each round of voting, cardinals are issued cards with this phrase inscribed at the top. Translation: "I elect as supreme pontiff." Each voter prints the name of his favorite candidate on the card, folds the paper once, and in order of age from oldest to youngest, walks up to the altar to cast his ballot.

Paten: The ballot is placed on a paten, which is from the Latin word for a shallow plate. It is the plate used to serve the consecrated bread — which Catholics believe is the Body of Christ — at Holy Communion. The ballot is then put into a chalice, from the Latin word for mug. It is the sacred vessel used to serve consecrated wine — which Catholics believe is the Blood of Christ — at Holy Communion. After each round, the votes are counted, then burned. Special chemicals are added to the fire so black smoke burns if there is no clear choice, and white smoke billows forth if a new pope has been chosen.

Pope: "Until recently," writes William H. Shannon, a priest and founder of the International Thomas Merton Society, in his essay "The Future of the Papacy," "a two-thirds majority plus one was required for election. After his election, Pope John Paul II changed this. Now if there is no conclusive vote after 30 ballots, an absolute majority suffices. "

If a candidate gets a majority on the first or second ballot, Shannon explains, "his supporters need only wait till 30 ballots have been cast. He will then be elected on the 31st ballot."

The mysterious process of choosing a new pope continues to change and evolve.

Shannon writes that the cardinals can choose just about anyone, as long as he is a baptized male. "There have been occasions in the past when laymen were elected," Shannon writes. "The one elected is asked if he accepts. The moment he accepts he is pope."

The cardinal dean then asks the new pope what name he chooses, according to Shannon. "Then the oldest member of the college announces the choice to the city of Rome and to the world."

Who will the new pope be? The contemporary Catholic Church is at a crossroads of traditional and progressive, says classics scholar Tara Welch. "That the Latin language is the medium of this moment is perplexing, suggestive, exciting, foreboding."

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.