Choosing the pope: How it works
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing as he arrives for a weekly general audience in St.Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Published Tuesday, February 26, 2013 7:12PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, March 12, 2013 11:37AM EDT
Cardinals from around the world are meeting in Rome this week to begin the process of selecting a new pope following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. While the voting itself will take place in secret, there are a number of steps in the process that are well established. Here’s what will happen.
Pope steps down
The Pope held his final papal audience on Feb. 27, in front of thousands of people. Pope Benedict XVI officially stepped down on Feb. 28, the first time a pope has done so in almost 600 years. While it was thought he would take the title ‘emeritus bishop of Rome,’ the Vatican announced Tuesday that the pope has decided he will be called ‘emeritus pope’ and will be addressed as ‘Your Holiness Benedict XVI.’ He will also continue to wear white instead of reverting to black clerical garments.
While only a select group of cardinals under 80 years of age are eligible to vote for the new pope, all cardinals have had a chance to meet together first to discuss issues that are facing the church today. Known as the General Congregation of Cardinals, the meeting is less secretive and less formal than the conclave to choose the pope. The general congregation announced the conclave would begin on March 12.
There are 115 eligible cardinals who are expected to participate in the secret vote to choose the new pope. During the conclave period, they will all be sequestered in a special part of the Vatican where they will have no access to the outside world, including newspapers and Internet.
“It really is a shutting off of the outside world once they’re selecting a new pope,“ says Professor Mark Yenson of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at King's University College in London, Ont.
Only a small group of support staff, including secretaries and medical personnel, will accompany the cardinals into conclave and they will all be sworn to secrecy.
After a period of prayer and reflection, the cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel to begin voting. While technically they can select any male willing to be baptized or ordained, historically one of the cardinals is selected.
Cardinals cast their ballots by writing in Latin ‘I elect as supreme pontiff ________.’ The ballots are then collected and counted by a rotating group of three cardinals. If no one receives two thirds of the vote, the ballots are burned with chemicals that turn the smoke dark. Voting then continues. Only one ballot is held on the first day but there can be up to four ballots on each successive day.
“It can take weeks. It can take months. There was a medieval example of one that took three years,” Yenson says. “But modern conclaves tend to last maybe a few weeks. The last one was very short. It was a day before they elected Benedict XVI.”
Once someone receives the necessary two thirds of the vote, the ballots are then burned along with chemicals that turn the smoke white, signalling a new pope has been picked.
Within a week of the vote, the new pope will be installed in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica.
A number of names have been mentioned in discussions about who may be in the running for the job. They include the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, as well as Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
No one is supposed to openly campaign for the job, but there are a few guidelines that the cardinals may consider in making their choice, Yenson says.
“There’s been a lot of tendency not to elect people too young,” Yenson says. “They did that with Pope John Paul II when he was in his 50’s and what you get with that is a very long papacy.
“Given his precedent of resigning, some have said that may free the cardinals to think of a younger candidate because he won’t necessarily be in office till the end of his life.”
In an organization that is technically its own country, organizational skills also matter.
“One of the effects of the scandals is the sense that the Vatican itself is somewhat in need of an administrative shakeup,” Yenson says. “(The cardinals) may be looking for someone who is not a complete Vatican outsider and someone who can work to solve the administrative problems within the Vatican.
“I think they’re also going to look for someone who is going to speak very sensitively on the issue of the sexual abuse scandal.”