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How the College of Cardinals Chooses a New Pope

When a pope dies in office or resigns, like Pope Benedict XVI did in early 2013, the College of Cardinals (all the cardinals in the Catholic Church) gather to elect a new pope. No sooner than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the death or resignation of the pope, all the cardinals are summoned to Rome for the secret conclave.

Conclave comes from the Latin cum clave, meaning with key, because the cardinals are literally locked into the Sistine Chapel, the pope’s private chapel at the Vatican, until they elect a new pope.

After the cardinals from around the world assemble inside the conclave, they begin discussions and deliberations. Almost like a sequestered jury, the cardinals are permitted no contact with the outside world during the conclave. Under pain of excommunication, no cardinal is ever allowed to discuss what transpires at these elections — to keep the element of politics and outside influence to a bare minimum.

Historically, the election of a new pope could take place in one of three different forms:

  • Acclamation: A name is presented, and everyone unanimously consents without the need of a secret ballot.

  • Compromise: Each cardinal casts a secret ballot. If no one achieves a two-thirds majority after several rounds of voting, then the entire College of Cardinals may choose one or several electors to select a candidate, and the entire body is bound to accept that choice. A unanimous vote to employ compromise is necessary for it to be valid.

  • Scrutiny: Each cardinal proposes a candidate and gives reasons for his qualifications before the individual cardinals cast their secret ballot. A two-thirds majority decision is needed to elect a new pope.

    This is the only valid method currently permitted in papal conclaves.

Want a peek at what’s going on behind those closed doors? When voting for a new pope, each cardinal writes a name on a piece of paper, which is placed on a gold paten (plate). The paten is then turned upside down, so the ballot can fall into a chalice (cup) underneath.

This symbolism is deep, because the paten and chalice are primarily used at the Catholic Mass to hold the wafer of bread and cup of wine that, when consecrated, become the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharistic Prayer.

If no one receives two-thirds of the votes or if the nominee declines the nomination, then wet straw is mixed with the paper ballots and burned in the chimney. The wet straw makes black smoke, which alerts the crowds gathered outside that a two-thirds majority decision hasn’t yet been made.

One vote occurs in the morning and one in the evening. The election continues twice a day, every day. In 1996, Pope John Paul II introduced a variation in which if no one was elected by a two-thirds majority after 21 votes, then on the 22nd ballot, the man who received a simple majority (50 percent plus one) was elected pope.

Pope Benedict XVI subsequently rescinded that change in 2007 and returned the requirement of two-thirds no matter how long the conclave takes. If someone receives two-thirds of the votes and he accepts, the ballots are burned without the straw, which blows white smoke to alert the crowds.

After a cardinal has received a two-thirds majority vote, he’s asked whether he accepts the nomination. If he accepts, he’s then asked, “By what name are you to be addressed?”

Pope John II (A.D. 533) was the first to change his name when he was elected pope because he was born with the name Mercury after the pagan god. So he chose the Christian name John instead. But it was not until Sergius IV (1009) that all subsequent popes continued the tradition of changing their name at the time of election.

So, for example, Pope Pius XII (1939) was originally Eugenio Pacelli, John XXIII (1958) was Angelo Roncalli, Paul VI (1963) was Giovanni Montini, John Paul I (1978) was Albino Luciani, John Paul II (1978) was Karol Wojtyla, and Benedict XVI (2005) was Josef Ratzinger.

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