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Procedure of Electing a New Pope

13 Mar
Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI

Sign of the White Smoke: Electing A New Pope

Before explaining the election process itself, it is necessary to offer a very brief explanation of the participants.  Naturally, you will first have the previous pope.  The Catholic pope is the highest-ranking authority within the church.  The process of electing a new pope begins when the previous pope no longer holds the position.  The second group of participants are certain members of the Bishops (the second highest-ranking group of people). These people are chosen by the pope from amongst the thousands of Bishops around the world to serve as Cardinals (2).  The Cardinals only job really is to serve  as advisors to the pope and to elect a new pope when needed (2).  Currently there are 117 Cardinals eligible to vote, although only 115 actually took part (3).  Finally, you have the potential successors to the position of pope.  Technically, any Catholic man who meets certain requirements (basically is of a certain age and hasn’t done anything to put them on the wrong side of God and the Church) is eligible (4).  However, usually the winner will be one of the Cardinals themselves.  

Up until now, usually the election process would start with the death of a pope.  However, while Pope Benedict XVI is not dead, the process will remain the same this time.  The process was most recently updated by the Universi Dominici Gregis (5), a document established during the reign of Pope John Paul in 1996 (1).   

  1. First, the Cardinals must set the date to begin the Conclave (the election).  This date must be within 20 days of the previous pope’s leaving (4).  
  2. One the date of the Conclave, the Cardinals convene.  They will be locked into the Sistine Chapel until the election is completed.  They are sworn to secrecy, and may only bring with then a secretary, servants, and in certain cases a doctor (4).  All Cardinals may attend, even those not voting. However, they will all be sworn to silence. As part of the process they are locked away from all outside contact. It’s basically like our jury trials where the jury goes to the back to choose guilty or not guilty.  
  3. Then the Voting Begins.  According to the instructions established by Pope John Paul, a 2/3 majority vote + 1 vote is necessary for the election (4, 5).  Until this is reached, four votes are held every day.  For each vote, the Cardinal receives a paper ballot, which he fills out by hand.  They then move to the altar and place the ballot onto a plate, which they use to drop it into a chalice.  This makes them use the tools of communion for the vote, binding them morally.  But it also makes it really hard for them to drop in more than one ballot, those limiting cheating (4).
  4. The Ballots Are Counted. There are three “scruitneers”–people who count the votes.  Before all of the Cardinals, the first takes the ballot and notes the name. The second then takes it and also notes the name.  The third then announces the name aloud, sticks it with a needle and hangs it on a thread. When all the votes are counted, the thread will be tied off and the votes will be placed together in a bowl (4).  If the vote was good, the ballots are burned in a way to show white smoke, stating a victory.  If it was unsuccessful, certain chemicals are added to make the smoke black. (4).  
  5. And the New Pope Is Announced! After a successful vote, the elected man is asked whether he accepts and what name he wants to adopt.  From then on, the inauguration and official speeches (including the Apostolic Blessing where the new pope speaks to the people at large for the first time) takes place.  He is now set into place where he will remain until he resigns or dies.

As of March 13, 2013, the new pope has been elected! His name is Bergoglio (Francis I) of Argentina

  1. John L. Allen, Jr., How a Pope Is Elected: A Step by Step Guide of the Process to Elect a Pope.
  2. The Three Tier Hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church
  3. How Many Roman Catholics Are in the World, BBC. 
  4. How the Pope is Elected, RELIGION FACTS
  5. Universi Dominici Gregis
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