A Papal Conclave, Coming Soon: After Benedict XVI’s Resignation, What to Know about the Election of the New Pope

The Sistine Chapel, reopening soon after the papal conclave
Come March, all eyes will be on St. Peter's Basilica for news of the new Pope!

Come March, all eyes will be on St. Peter’s Basilica for news of the new Pope!

Rome—and the world—has been rocked by the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign on February 28, meaning that the Vatican will hold a papal conclave in March.

Pope Benedict XVI has shocked the world by announcing his decision to resign at the end of February.

Pope Benedict XVI has shocked the world by announcing his decision to resign at the end of February.

The Pope will be the first since 1415 to abdicate his seat, seemingly for health reasons. That’s big news not only for Catholics, but for anyone planning to come to Rome in March, when the election for the new pope will occur.

But what exactly is a conclave, who can vote, and who can be elected? The answers might surprise you!

What is a conclave, exactly?

In Vatican-speak, “conclave” describes two different things: The closed room that cardinals stay in when they’re electing a new pope, and the assembly of the cardinals itself. The word comes from cum clave (Latin for “with a key”), describing how the cardinals were locked up while they made the decision.

Have conclaves always been the way to elect a new pope?

No. Before the 13th century, papal selection could drag on for months or even years, leaving a dangerous power vacuum between popes. After Clement IV died in 1268, the six cardinals nominated to pick his successor debated for almost three years!

Enter the decision of the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, which set up the conclave rules that are still, more or less, followed today. To keep the process from dragging on forever, they said that 10 days after the Pope’s death, cardinals should meet in the palace of the city where he died. They had to assemble in one room—the conclave—and they weren’t allowed to leave: They had to sleep next to each other and take all their meals there. They weren’t allowed to send out any messages, and their discussions were held strictly in private.

If that wasn’t enough to hurry up the decision? Here’s where things got harsh: If the cardinals didn’t agree on a new pope within three days, their food was rationed. If they still hadn’t agreed, five days later, their food was lessened even more.

Guess what? It worked. The first conclave lasted a day. The one after that, a week.

Are conclaves always held in the Sistine Chapel?

Today, papal conclaves are held here in the Sistine Chapel.

Today, papal conclaves are held here in the Sistine Chapel.

They are now. But the Sistine Chapel wasn’t built until the end of the 15th century, so obviously, they weren’t always held here! (The first was held here in 1492, and all conclaves since 1878 have been held in the Sistine Chapel).

While voting occurs in the Sistine Chapel, though, the cardinals don’t live and sleep there during the conclave. Up until 1996, cardinals slept in simple rooms and rented cots in the Vatican palaces, sharing bathrooms with one another. It was still a step up from the stricter days of the 13th century, but in 1996, Pope John Paul II—who had been through two conclaves himself, and seen how difficult they were for older, ailing cardinals—had the Domus Sanctae Marthae erected. It offers furnished, private rooms from single rooms to more-deluxe suites (assigned at random, regardless of the cardinal’s rank); dining facilities are there, as well.

While that’s cushier than it was in the past, the cardinals do still, of course, have to give up their connection to the outside world: No radios, television, or telephones are connected during the conclave.

Who’s eligible to be pope?

More people than you might think! Contrary to popular belief, according to Vatican law, you don’t have to be a cardinal to be chosen. (Of course, the last time that happened was 1378, with Urban VI. But still).

Current Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Sodano

More surprisingly still, you don’t even have to have a Church career. Even a layman can be elected pope. (The last time that happened: Celestine V, 1294). Even a married man could be elected!

Granted, it’s hardly likely that we’ll see any of these come to pass in 2013. But it was hardly likely Benedict XVI would become the first pope in 600 years to resign, either. So who knows!

The one thing we can be sure of, given current Vatican law: The pope can’t be a heretic, or female.

Who’s allowed to vote?

Any cardinal under 80 years of age. There are about 200 cardinals, and currently, 118 are eligible to vote.

How does voting work?

It’s usually—but not necessarily—by secret ballot. Called scrutinium, the secret ballot requires a two-thirds majority for the election to be called. But it’s not completely secret, in that every cardinal’s vote can be distinguished by a Scripture text written on one of its folds. The reason? If the vote is close, the ballot of the pope-elect can be singled out and checked to make sure he didn’t vote for himself.

Two votes are taken each day, one in the morning, one in the evening. And here comes the fun part: When the two-thirds majority isn’t obtained, the ballots are put into a stove in the Sistine Chapel… and black smoke pipes out the chimney, visible to everyone on St. Peter’s Square. When the Pope is chosen? White smoke!

What happens to the new pope when he’s elected?

The first thing he does is accept the election (hopefully, anyway!), and announce the name that he’s chosen for himself. (This is a tradition dating back to the 11th century). He’s conducted to another room, where he dons the garments of the Pope, and the cardinals line up to pay him homage. The Fisherman’s Ring is put on his finger, and then he goes to meet the public: He makes his first proclamation as Pope from St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s the first moment the world discovers who the new pope is!

How long does this all take?

There’s no telling, but the last few conclaves have been relatively swift. Pope John Paul II  was elected after two days, while Pope Benedict XVI was elected after just one. So if you want your chance to see the white smoke puff out of the Sistine Chapel, get to St. Peter’s Square on the first day—and be prepared to wait out the day!


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