Conclave: How a Pope Gets Picked

Scores of cardinals have descended on Rome for the conclave, or electoral assembly, to elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor. Click through for a closer look at the secretive process.

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** CAPTION ADDITION TO CLARIFY THAT ARTIST WAS NOT INSIDE THE CHAPEL ** An artist's rendering shows Cardinals debating during the closed-doors conclave to elect the new pope at the Vatican, Tuesday, April 19, 2005. The drawing is by French artist Noelle Herrenschmidt, 65. The artist was not present inside the Conclave, which is a closed-doors meeting of Cardinals, but based her sketches on an informed study of the Vatican and its election procedures. (AP Photo)
Under most circumstances, a pope's reign ends with his death, which initiates a highly-scripted process that concludes when a successor has been elected. Pope Benedict XVI's decision to step down—something that had not been done in nearly 600 years—allowed for the process, which typically includes a funeral, to be somewhat expedited.
The power to elect a new pope lies in the hands of cardinals, dignitaries of the Church and counselors to the pontiff. Those over the age of 80 vote by ballot in a sealed room inside the Sistine Chapel. Both the room and the assembly of cardinals itself, is known as a conclave.
Since the pope first announced his resignation, cardinals have been trickling into Rome to see off the pontiff and prepare for the upcoming vote. By Thursday, the last of the 153 expected cardinals arrived for the Conclave. One hundred fifteen of the 117 voting-aged cardinals were in attendance.
In the first of several meetings, cardinals gathered at the Vatican March 4 to review the rules of Universi Dominici Gregis, the law on electoral procedure issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996, and to take an oath of secrecy. Once all the expected cardinals had arrived, they set the voting date for Tuesday
All cardinals will reside in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a modern residence walking distance from the Sistine Chapel, until the conclave has ended. All rooms are assigned by random selection. Before its construction in 1996, cardinals had to sleep on cots next to the Sistine Chapel.
Before voting begins, cardinals take another oath of secrecy and the Master of Ceremonies orders "extra omens!" or "everybody out!" (except for those involved in the voting process). From this point on, electors cannot communicate with anyone outside the chapel. The election process begins with a single ballot.
Each cardinal writes the name of his selection on the bottom of a ballot that has the Latin words for, "I elect as supreme pontiff," printed across the center. Current law says that only bishops can be elected pope, which still theoretically opens the field to hundreds of potential successors. But since the 15th century, electors have always selected a fellow cardinal.
Once the ballots are filled out, they are folded, walked to an altar and dropped into a chalice. Scrutineers make sure the correct number of ballots were collected. If the numbers don't match up, all the ballots are burned and a new vote begins. If the numbers do match up, the ballots are tallied by three scrutineers and strung together with needle and thread.
If there is agreement among two-thirds of voters, the election is successful and a new pope is named. Without a two-thirds vote, the ballots are burned with a chemical used to produce a plume of distinct black smoke, which will signal to the outside world, that the process has not yet been successful.
Voting continues twice daily (morning and afternoon) until a pope is selected. Between votes there is time for prayer and discussion. When a two-thirds majority is finally achieved, the ballots and any notes are burned—this time without the darkening chemicals. The white smoke signals success.
Whoever is elected will be asked if he accepts his new role and if so, what he would like be called. After selecting a name, he is taken to a sacristy inside the chapel where he will select the papal vestments that fit him best (three sizes will be available to try). He will then return to the chapel for the homage of the cardinal-electors.
Finally, the pope is escorted through the Hall of Benedictions to a window that opens to the loggia. The senior cardinal deacon announces the new pope in Latin. "Habemus papam!" or "We have a pope," he proclaims, and then the Supreme Pontiff appears, and delivers his first blessing as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
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