How Does the Church Elect a New Pope?

When the time has come for a new Holy Pontiff to be elected, the members of the college of cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel and have no contact with the outside world. After each vote they burn the ballots. If no Pope was elected, the smoke is black. If the election was successful, the smoke will be white.

What is the College of Cardinals?

The college of cardinals refers collectively to the cardinals of the Catholic Church. “College” comes from the Latin word “collegium,” meaning “society” and from which we derive cognates such as “collection” and “colleague.”

Cardinals themselves are the highest ranking Catholic prelates under the Pope himself. Therefore, it is fitting that the cardinals, coming together as a body or “society,” are given the important task of selecting a new Pope in the event of a vacancy in the See of Peter.

According to Church law, the Pope freely selects those who are to serve the Church as cardinals. They are usually bishops or archbishops, though priests are also eligible for this office. Those selected as cardinals are “especially outstanding for their doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action” (Code of Canon Law, canon 351).

Since cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff, no new cardinals may be added to the college during a vacancy in the papacy.

Why is the papal election called a conclave? Where do the cardinals stay during a conclave?

The word “conclave” comes from combining the Latin words cum (“with”) and clavis (“key”). A conclave, then, refers to the private, locked area where the papal election takes place. Today, in common parlance, “conclave” is used more generally to refer to the assembly of cardinals who have gathered to elect the next Pope.

In 1274, Pope Gregory X instituted the conclave as a means of avoiding outside interference and of facilitating the process, as the papacy was vacant for nearly three years prior to his election. While a conclave is not strictly necessary for validity, and popes may dispense with the process in the case of emergency, it has been the usual means of electing a Pope for well over 700 years.

In more recent centuries, conclaves have been held in the Sistine Chapel, the famous main chapel of the Vatican Palace. The Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV (reigned 1471-84), who commissioned its construction. It is the home of some of the most magnificent Christian works of art ever created.

In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, Bl. John Paul II maintained this practice, decreeing that the papal election “is to take place exclusively in the Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.”

However, in the same document, while strictly maintaining the necessary secrecy and security precautions, John Paul announced the establishment of the recently constructed Domus Sanctus Marthae (House of St. Martha) in the Vatican, where the cardinal electors receive lodging during the conclave. Given the growth of the college of cardinals to 120 voting members during the past century, these new accommodations allow for less cramped personal space for the duration of the conclave.

The 1996 constitution still provides for the enclosure and freedom from outside influences that are important hallmarks of a conclave. It provides that “from the beginning of the electoral process until the public announcement that the election of the Supreme Pontiff has taken place, or in any case until the new Pope so disposes, the rooms of the Domus Sanctus Marthae, and in particular the Sistine Chapel and the areas reserved for liturgical celebration, are to be closed to unauthorized persons . . .

“During this period, the entire territory of Vatican City and the ordinary activity of the offices located therein shall be regulated in a way which permits the election of the Supreme Pontiff to be carried out with due privacy and freedom. In particular, provision shall be made to ensure that no one approaches the cardinal electors while they are being transported from the Domus Sanctae Marthae to the Apostolic Vatican Palace.”

How is a Pope elected?

Normally, after providing for the funeral and burial rites for the deceased Pope and making the necessary preparations, the college of cardinals convenes to elect the next Pope. According to Church law, this “conclave” must begin 15-20 days after the Pope’s death.

The conclave begins with the cardinal-electors meeting in the basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican for a special Mass Pro Eligendo Papa (“For electing the Pope”). Then, in the afternoon, from the Pauline Chapel of the apostolic palace, the cardinal-electors will solemnly process to the Sistine Chapel, invoking the assistance of the Holy Spirit with the chant of the Veni Creator.

Once in the Sistine Chapel, each of the cardinal-electors takes an oath of fidelity and secrecy. Then the election proper begins, following a procedure that has been consistently followed for many centuries.

For the valid election of the Pope, a candidate must receive at least two thirds of the votes, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present. Detailed provisions are made to allow cardinal-electors who are ill (Infirmarii) to exercise their vote.

The cardinals are called to have before their eyes only the glory of God and the good of the Church in exercising their vote. Having prayed for divine assistance, they must give their vote to the person, even if he’s not a cardinal, who in their judgment is most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way.

There is just one ballot taken on the first day and, assuming no Pope has been elected, there would be four ballots on each of the next three days. Each ballot is undertaken pursuant to very strict rules that preserve secrecy and decorum. A cardinal may write the name of only one candidate on the ballot. If the requisite number of votes have not been received by any candidate, the ballots are burned so as to emit a black smoke from the Sistine Chapel, thereby telling the world that no Pope has been elected yet.

If after the third full day of voting (13 ballots) the Pope has not been elected, the election is suspended for up to one full day to allow for additional prayer, informal discussion, and a brief spiritual exhortation by a senior cardinal. Then the election continues. After seven more ballots, the election is again suspended in this manner. This process can happen three times.

After the completion of the third set of seven additional ballots, which would be the 34th ballot overall without anyone receiving at least two-thirds of the vote, the cardinal electors have the option of modifying the procedure by reducing the required number of votes to a mere majority (in this case, 58 votes). At that time the cardinals may also limit the voting to the two individuals who received the most votes in the preceding ballot, creating in essence a runoff election. This feature was introduced by Bl. John Paul II.

Following the procedure of four ballots per day, with the relaxation of the two-thirds requirement after the 34th ballot, the papal election should rarely exceed ten days.

When do we have a new pope?

When the papal election has taken place and a candidate has received the requisite number of votes, the Cardinal Dean, in the name of the entire college of cardinals, then asks the consent of the one elected in the following words: Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff? Once the consent is given, he is then asked, By what name do you wish to be called?

Then the Master of Papal Celebrations (currently, Msgr. Guido Marini), acting as notory and having as witnesses two other Masters of Ceremonies who are to be summoned at that time, draws up a document certifying the new Pope’s acceptance of his election and his papal name.

To become a Pope, one needs both consecration as a bishop as well as a legitimate papal election. If the person elected as Pope is already a bishop, which is usually the case, he becomes upon his acceptance the Bishop of Rome, the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth. At that moment, in virtue of his office, he can exercise full and supreme power over the entire Church.

If the person elected is not already a bishop, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately, at which time he becomes the new Pope. While the man elected as Pope is typically a cardinal and a bishop or archbishop, he need not be either of these at the time of his election.

The results of the election are publicly known when white smoke is seen rising above the Sistine Chapel where the cardinal electors are gathered. The ballots used in the election are burned in a stove in the Sistine Chapel each time they are cast. Black smoke indicates no election, white indicates that a new Pope has been legitimately chosen.

Does the person who is elected pope have to accept this office?

It is possible to decline the responsibility of becoming the next Pope. There are cases of prominent cardinals who have made it clear during the conclave that they would not accept if elected. Others have rejected the office after the election. One famous case is that of St. Philip Benizi. When he was elected in 1271, he ran away and hid until the cardinals elected somebody else. Usually, though, the newly elected Pope accepts this office as God’s will for him.

In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul II made the following heartfelt plea to those elected after him:

I . . . ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office.

Once a papal candidate has been elected according to the procedure provided by Church law, the dean of the college of cardinals asks for his consent in the following words: Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff? And, as soon as he has received the consent, he asks him: By what name do you wish to be called?

Only upon giving his consent does he become the new Pope, assuming (as is usually the case) that he has already received episcopal ordination.

As lay men and women, what is our role during a vacancy in the papacy?

In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, Bl. John Paul II addressed this question directly in paragraph no. 84:

During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, and above all during the time of the election of the Successor of Peter, the Church is united in a very special way with her Pastors and particularly with the Cardinal electors of the Supreme Pontiff, and she asks God to grant her a new Pope as a gift of his goodness and providence. Indeed, following the example of the first Christian community spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 1:14), the universal Church, spiritually united with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, should persevere with one heart in prayer; thus the election of the new Pope will not be something unconnected with the People of God and concerning the College of electors alone, but will be in a certain sense an act of the whole Church. I therefore lay down that in all cities and other places, at least the more important ones, as soon as news is received of the vacancy of the Apostolic See and, in particular, of the death of the Pope, and following the celebration of his solemn funeral rites, humble and persevering prayers are to be offered to the Lord (cf. Mt. 21:22; Mk. 11:24), that he may enlighten the electors and make them so likeminded in their task that a speedy, harmonious and fruitful election may take place, as the salvation of souls and the good of the whole People of God demand.

Prayer at all levels—individual, family, parish, diocese, and beyond—is what the Church asks of the faithful as the cardinals convene to elect a new Pope.