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How is the Pope Elected?


The process of electing a new Pope is, like many aspects of the Catholic Church, enshrined in centuries of tradition, with a few modern developments.

The Electorate: The Cardinals

Upon the death of a Pope – or, as with Benedict XVI in 2013, with a resignation – the Dean of the College of Cardinals is called to create a ‘Conclave’, a gathering of Cardinals. Only Cardinals vote in the Papal elections, but in the twentieth century there have been restrictions on who from this number may vote: in 1975 changes ruled only Cardinals under eighty may take part, and then only a hundred and twenty of them. Traditionally the Conclave must meet no later than twenty eight days after the Pope’s death, but no sooner than fifteen days, so as to give ample travel time and allow suitable mourning.

Secrecy and Seclusion

When the Conclave has gathered at the Vatican, they are not allowed to leave until a Pope has been elected, and are to have contact only with themselves. There is no modern media, like televisions or radios, and certainly no mobile phones. However, key medical staff are allowed, if needed, and staff provide the necessary day to day requirements; there are also priests to hear confessions. This is organized by the Cardinal Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, and as the Cardinals are sworn to secrecy the process has become a source of fascination.

The Vote

Once gathered, the Cardinals make four votes a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, (although on the first day there is an option for just an afternoon vote) and afterwards the voting slips are burned. This allows for the only measure of contact with the outside world: crowds gather to see the smoke emerging from the Vatican chimneys. Normally the slips are burnt with dye to produce black smoke, but when a Pope is chosen the smoke is turned to white. (Dye has been introduced to prevent confusion, the old damp straw being withdrawn.) In the modern world, cameras will be trained as intently on the chimney as the visitors to the city. The voting takes place in the Sistine Chapel, and is performed by simply writing the chosen name on a piece of paper and folding it. These are then counted.

In theory, any baptized Catholic male can be elected a Pope, but in practice the Cardinals have chosen one of their own every time since 1378. The rules on how many votes are needed have changed (John Paul II introduced a simple majority for Conclaves over twelve days in length), but now stand at one person requiring a two thirds majority of the vote. There is plenty of politicking and discussion. It’s possible for Cardinals who don’t have much chance of being elected to heavily influence the outcome during the debates, and it’s often said the favorite has almost no chance of being elected.

This all means the conclave can take a long time. In the medieval era days, even weeks, could go by with the Cardinals conferring, and death wasn’t an unprecedented event. Once elected, the Pope is asked whether he accepts, decides on a name, and is presented to the crowds to give a blessing.

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