How Is a New Pope Elected?
The Pope is elected by ballot, the votes being cast by the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church in conclave at the Vatican in Rome. When a pope dies or resigns, the governance of the Catholic Church passes to the College of Cardinals. Cardinals are bishops and Vatican officials from all over the world, personally chosen by the pope, recognizable by their distinctive red vestments. Their primary responsibility is to elect a new pope.
Following a vacancy in the papacy, the cardinals hold a series of meetings at the Vatican called general congregations. They discuss the needs and the challenges facing the Catholic Church globally. They will also prepare for the upcoming papal election, called a conclave. Decisions that only the pope can make, such as appointing a bishop or convening the Synod of Bishops, must wait till after the election.
In the past, they made arrangements for the funeral and burial of the deceased pope. After the death of a pope, nine days of mourning, the Novendialia, are observed in the Basilica of St. Peter’s. Eighteen days after the Novendialia the cardinals, who have come to the Vatican from all over the world, enter a part of the palace that is closed to outsiders. The doors giving access to it are walled up and messages are passed in by rotas, or turning boxes, set in the walls.
Only cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote in a conclave. They are known as the cardinal electors, and their number is limited to 120. For the conclave itself, the cardinal electors process to the Sistine Chapel and take an oath of absolute secrecy before sealing the doors. The cardinals, vote by secret ballot, processing one by one up to Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment, saying a prayer and dropping the twice-folded ballot in a large chalice. Four rounds of balloting are taken every day until a candidate receives two-thirds of the vote.
Each morning and afternoon the cardinals vote in the Sistine Chapel. The votes are immediately counted aloud and recorded by three scrutineers, who are changed at each session. If no candidate receives the necessary majority of two-thirds plus one, the votes are burned in a stove in the corner of the chapel with wet straw so that black smoke is produced. When a cardinal is chosen, dry straw is used and the resulting white smoke signals the election of a new pope to the crowd on the piazza of St Peter’s.
When a cardinal receives the necessary two-thirds vote, the dean of the College of Cardinals asks him if he accepts his election. If he accepts, he chooses a papal name and is dressed in papal vestments before processing out to the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. The senior cardinal deacon, currently French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, announces from the balcony of St. Peter’s “Habemus Papam” (“We have a pope”) before the new pope processes out and imparts his blessing on the city of Rome and the entire world.