Papal Resignation and Election Homepage
When In Rome - Cardinal DiNardo’s Travel Blog
What Happens When a Pope Dies or Resigns
Que pasa cuando un Papa muere o renuncia
How a New Pope Is Elected
Como un nuevo Papa es elegido
What Happens After A New Pope Is Elected
    Lo que sucede despues de un nuevo Papa es elegido
Prayer and Liturgy Resources
    Oracion y Liturgia Recursos
Catechetical Resources

How a New Pope Is Elected


The word conclave comes from the Latin cum clave (with key).  The Cardinals will be locked "with a key" in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope.

At the beginning of the "sede vacante" (the "empty chair" of St. Peter), the College of Cardinals assume the governance of the Church.  They will meet daily in General Congregation to deal with limited church business and to go over the conclave arrangements. A Particular Congregation consisting of 4 cardinals also meets to handle routine matters and pressing needs of governance.

The cardinals will also choose two theologians "known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority" to address the cardinals on the issues facing the church and the need for careful discernment when choosing the pope. The first is speech occurs during a meetings of the General Congregation, and the second on the first afternoon of conclave. Before conclave begins, the cardinals will also meet informally to discuss a issues facing the church and the cardinals who might be elected.

The conclave normally begins 15-20 days after the death of pope.  In the case of resignation, the preparation for the conclave will begin immediately after the resignation takes effect.

The conclave begins with a Mass Pro Eligendo Papa ("for electing the pope"). This mass, celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica, is the last public event before the election begins. That afternoon, the cardinals will process in to the Sistine Chapel.  The order "extra omnes" (all out) is given and everyone who is not authorized to be in the room must leave.

Secrecy and avoiding outside influence is vital. The cardinals take two oaths of secrecy, one when they arrive in Rome and one when the conclave begins. The Sistine Chapel is swept for electronic listening devices; the cardinals are barred from outside communications, including reading the news; and they must stay together at the Domus Santa Marta, a residence on Vatican grounds.

The few people allowed near them must take an oath of secrecy: aides/masters of ceremonies; housekeeping and cooking staff; two doctors; and priests for hearing confessions. A cardinal who is ill and requires assistance may have a personal aide. All of these people must be approved by the Particular Congregation.

Election is done by scrutiny, or secret ballot.  A two-thirds majority of the cardinals present is required to elect a pope. 

Under the rules, secret ballots can be cast once on the first day of the conclave, then normally twice during each subsequent morning and evening session. Except for periodic pauses, the voting continues until a new pontiff is elected. Only cardinals under the age of 80 when the "sede vacante," begins are eligible to enter the conclave and vote for the next pope.

In theory, any baptized male Catholic can be elected pope, but current church law says he must become a bishop before taking office; since the 15th century, the electors always have chosen a fellow cardinal.

Cardinals write the name of the person they choose to elect on a piece of paper.  Each cardinal then walks to the altar, holding up his folded ballot so it can be seen, and says aloud: "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." He places his ballot on a plate, or paten, and then slides it into a receptacle.

When all the ballots have been collected, they are read aloud, counted and double-checked.

If the vote is inconclusive, the ballots are burned with chemicals to produce a black smoke.  If the vote is successful, chemicals are added to produce white smoke.  Previously, ballots were burned dry to produce white smoke, or damp straw was added to produce black smoke.

In 2005, the bells of St. Peter's Basilica were also rung to signal an election.

Next: What happens after a new pope is elected?


Back to Papal Resignation and Election Page