How is a Pope Elected?

The election of a new pope is a process that is steeped in rich history. After a pope dies, the group of the highest ranking clergy, called the College of Cardinals is called to Rome for the papal election. This gathering, called the Conclave , began in 1274.

The word conclave comes from the Latin words cum (with) and clavis (key) and literally means "locked with a key". This refers to the fact that the cardinals are locked in a room until they make a decision.

Technically, any Catholic man is eligible to be elected; however, the pool of candidates has been limited to the cardinals.

When the Pope dies , the Cardinal Camerlengo must verify the death. Traditionally, this is done by calling the Pope by his baptismal name three times without response. Then Cardinal Camerlengo must authorize a death certificate and make it known publicly by notifying the Cardinal Vicar for the Diocese of Rome.

The Pope's private quarters are then sealed by the Camerlengo and arrangements are made for the papal seal and the "ring of the fisherman", inscribed with the name of the reigning pope, to be broken. Later, a new ring will be created for newly elected pope. The Camerlengo then arranges for the burial and the traditional nine days of mourning. Following this period, assisted by three elected officials from the college, the Camerlengo directs the election of the new pope.

The Conclave is held within the Sistine Chapel. Each cardinal swears an oath to protect the secrecy of the election. Breaking this oath carries a penalty of immediate excommunication. All entrances to the annex of the Sistine Chapel where the Conclave is held are sealed and curtains are closed.

During this time, Cardinals are not permitted any contact to the outside world: no mobile phones, newspapers or television, no messages, letters or signals to observers. There are regular sweeps of the chapel and all relevant places for listening devices.

The Cardinals take seats around the walls of the Sistine Chapel and take a paper ballot on which is written "Eligo in suumum pontificem", translated, "I elect as supreme Pontiff...". They write their choice, fold it, and proceed one by one to the altar. They hold their ballot high to show that they have voted and place it upon a chalice with a paten (a plate) atop.

The votes are counted by the Camerlengo and the three elected officials. Each of the three read the name, then read the name aloud, and write it down on a tally sheet. The last of the assistants runs a needle and thread through the center of the ballot to join all the ballots together.

After the vote is complete, the ballots are burned in a small stove within the chapel.

The chimney of the stove can be seen from St. Peter's square.

If the vote is inconclusive, a chemical substance is added to the paper ballots to make them produce black smoke when burned. The onlookers in St. Peter's square then know a ballot has failed and that the church is still without a pope.

The cardinals vote once in the afternoon of the first day of Conclave, then twice each morning and once each following afternoon until the vote is conclusive. If no pope is elected after nine ballots, then they may devote up to a day to prayer and discussion before resuming the vote.

Once the balloting is conclusive, the ballots are burned and produce white smoke from the stove's chimney. The crowds in St. Peter's square then know that the new pope will soon emerge.

After the conclusive vote, each cardinal lowers a purple canopy over his chair, leaving the newly elected Pope's canopy folded. The dean of the cardinals asks the chosen member if he accepts the papacy. After accepting, the new pontiff is made bishop of Rome and each of the cardinals pledge their obedience to His Holiness in turn.

The dean then steps out onto the balcony of the Vatican and shouts, "Habemus papam!" or "We have a Pope!". His Holiness then appears on the Balcony and delivers his Apostolic Blessing to the world.

Pope Paul VI significantly changed the rules of conclave in 1975 when he decreed the Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontifico Eligendo. All cardinals 80 years or older were excluded from conclave.

Pope John Paul II also set forth a whole new set of rules in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis. His new rules did not dramatically change the traditional ways, but were significant:

  • If no cardinal has been elected by two-thirds majority after a certain number of ballots, the cardinals may agree by absolute majority (half +1) to elect the Pope
  • Rather than staying in uncomfortable, makeshift quarters in the Papal Palace, the Cardinals will stay in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, hotel-style accommodation in Vatican City
  • The only remaining method of electing the Pope is by scrutiny or secret ballot. The methods of election by acclamation and by committee were excluded
  • Older cardinals are still unable to enter the conclave, but they are invited to take an active role in the preparatory meetings
  • The rules of secrecy are tougher

Only 120 Cardinal Electors under the age of 80 are allowed at any one time.

Sourced from:
National Geographic
Time Magazine
Catholic Almanac