White Smoke Watch: What Are Those Cardinals Smoking in There?


When the papal conclave begins at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican on Tuesday, onlookers outside will be eager to see whether white or black smoke eventually emanates from the world's most famous church. Fumata bianca (white smoke) would indicate that the cardinals have selected a new pontiff, while fumata nera (black smoke) would indicate that the conclave has thus far been unable to come to an agreement on the who the next Bishop of Rome should be.

One important question about this whole process is, what are the cardinals smoking in there that would produce all this smoke?

As it turns out, nothing. The smoke is produced by burning their papal ballots and straw or chemicals to produced the desired color. As the Washington Post points out, two special stoves are installed for the occasion:

"When the cardinals vote on candidates for the next pope tomorrow, they’ll burn their ballots in the first stove ... to maintain secrecy. Then they’ll use the second stove to burn special chemicals that will give off either white or black smoke. The latter color signals that the “conclave” has not selected the next pope; the former that they’ve decided. There’s a special spotlight ready in case they decide after dark."

For an institution always concerned about hell, between the white and black smoke, and the incense burned during Mass, Catholics sure like setting things on fire.