How The Pope Is Elected: The Papal Conclave

Wed, 02/27/2013 - 04:52

Carol King explains how the next pope will be elected in a process rich in ritual and tradition.

As Pope Benedict XVI readies to leave office on the evening of 28 February to stay in lodgings at the apostolic palace at Castel Gandolfo before he transfers to a monastery on Vatican Hill, focus has shifted to who will be his successor.

Inevitably, the media has named certain likely candidates, referred to as the ‘papabile’ (pope-able). Among those mentioned as possible successors are Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga and Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Nigerian Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan and Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson are thought to be the strongest African candidates, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is considered the strongest European candidate from outside Italy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer is regarded as the strongest Latin American candidate.

The Vatican announced that the conclave to elect a new pope could start on 11 March if enough cardinals are present in the Vatican City State, the exact date of conclave will not be known until the cardinals meet after the pope leaves office, then a decision could be made any time from 2 to 4 March. However, the Vatican has said there will be a new pope by Easter. This year, Easter Sunday falls on 31 March and it seems likely there a new pope will be installed for Holy Week.

The process of electing a new pope begins when the Cardinal Camerlengo (Chamberlain), Tarcisio Bertone, declares officially that the papacy is vacant. The principal seals of office are destroyed. For example, the pope’s signet ring, known as the ‘Fisherman’s Ring’ because it engraved with a motif of the miraculous catch of fish, is smashed so that no one can use the seal on any documents until the new pope is elected.

Conclave Angel & Demons
Photo: movie 'Angels & Demons' [2009]

The next pope will be elected by the College of Cardinals, which includes all the cardinal bishops and patriarchs, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons from around the world. However, only cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the pope; 44% of the cardinals are aged over 80 and so ineligible to vote. The Apostolic Constitution specifies that the maximum number of electors should be 120 and this time round, 117 cardinals are eligible to vote. Of those, 61 are European, 19 Latin American, 14 North American, 11 African, 11 Asian and one from Oceania.

However, 78-year-old Indonesian Cardinal Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja will not attend the conclave because of severe health problems. Nor will 74-year-old British Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien participate in conclave following his resignation, which he tendered in November 2012 in view of his 75th birthday on 17 March 2013, but which was accepted in February 2013. Cardinal O’Brien cited his “indifferent health” and his age in his resignation, but the acceptance comes after recent accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards priests dating from the 1980s that he contests. Consequently, 115 cardinals will vote in the conclave.

Conclave Angel & Demons

The cardinals elect the pope in a papal conclave. Derived from the Latin words ‘cum’ and ‘clave’, conclave means ‘under lock and key’, referring to the fact the cardinals withdraw from the world while they meditate: they are locked in and others are locked out until a pope is chosen.

The cardinals stay at the Domus Sanctae Marthae (St. Martha’s House) residence adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica. Their apartments are allocated by drawing lots. Two renowned preachers give a sermon to the cardinals. One sermon is given before they enter the conclave and the other when they enter the Sistine Chapel. The sermons outline the need for wise discernment in choosing a future pope and lay out the current state of the Church, suggesting the necessary qualities for a pope at this particular time.

On the morning the conclave begins, the cardinals attend a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, known as the ‘Pro eligendo Papa’ (for the election of a Pope). In the afternoon, they assemble in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican Palace, where they chant the Latin hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ (Come Creator Spirit) to invoke the Holy Spirit. Chanting, they move to the Sistine Chapel. There, they swear an oath in Latin to maintain secrecy regarding matters related to the election of the pontiff while the papacy is vacant. The Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations calls out: “Extra omnes!” (Everyone else, out!), and closes the doors. The election is then held in total seclusion.

Habemus Papa
Photo: movie 'Habemus Papam' [2011]

The Sistine Chapel is transformed for the duration of the election. Desks and chairs are arranged along the side walls for the cardinals, who are seated in double rows facing one another. In front of the altar, there are central tables, where the votes are cast and counted. The result of a ballot is checked and announced.

The ballot papers have the words ‘Eligo in Summum Pontificem’ (I elect as Supreme Pontiff) printed on the upper half, with a space on the lower half to fill in the name of the person chosen. Each elector holds high their completed folded ballot paper between thumb and forefinger, saying: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

Each cardinal places their ballot paper on the paten, a small metal plate used for the Eucharistic wafer during mass, and lets it slide into the chalice-like urn below. The cardinal bows in reverence and returns to his seat. Three scrutineers examine the ballot papers and the candidates’ names are read aloud. One of the scutineers inserts a needle through the word ‘Eligo’ (I elect) on each ballot paper and draws a thread through that is knotted at both ends.

Conclave - Sistine Chapel

The scrutineers count all the ballots and the revisers count them again. The pope is elected by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, or two-thirds plus one when the total number of cardinal electors does not divide into three equal parts. If there is no conclusive vote, the process starts again. When a vote is inconclusive, an account of the voting is put in a sealed envelope, which is stored in an archive.

A stove is installed temporarily in a corner of the Sistine Chapel near the main entrance. This is where the ballot papers are burned by an assistant at a designated time. The smoke produced by the burned papers comes out from a chimney constructed against the external gable wall, which is visible in St. Peter’s Square. When the smoke is a dark colour, it indicates that a ballot is inconclusive. When the smoke is white, it indicates that a ballot has been decisive and a new pope has been elected.

Balloting takes place twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. If there is no conclusive vote after three days, the process is suspended for a day before it starts again. If there is no conclusive result after another seven ballots, there is another pause, then there are another seven ballots. In modern times, conclaves have been short, taking from two to five days.


The cardinals can vote for any other cardinal or Catholic bishop, priest, deacon or layman anywhere in the world, or of any liturgical rite, for example Latin or Byzantine. It is most likely that a cardinal will be elected as pope: the last time a non-cardinal was elected was in 1378, which caused the Great Western Schism that divided the Church into rival factions for almost 40 years.

The dean asks the man elected if they accept the post. A person can refuse, but it is usual that someone who does not want to be pope makes this clear before the process reaches that point. After the individual assents, the deans asks him what he wishes to be called. The elected pope gives the name he wants to be known by during his pontificate, a document is drawn up and, immediately, the individual is the pope. He is escorted to a room behind Michelangelo’ fresco of ‘The Last Judgment’ where he dons the white papal robes, white skull cap, red silk cape and red velvet stole. Three sizes of white soutane – large, medium and small – are ready to be adjusted to fit the new pope. The cardinals pay homage and obedience to the new pope then sing the Latin hymn ‘Te Deum’ (Thee, O God) in thanksgiving to God.

The Senior Cardinal Deacon, Jean-Louis Tauran, then announces the name of the new from St Peter’s central balcony, saying: ‘Habemus Papam’ (We have a Pope!). The new pope appears to give his first apostolic blessing, the Urbi et Orbi (To the City [Rome] and to the World). The conclave is over.