Re-posted from Educare’s Random Subjects Made Simple No. 51 Electing a Pope
Pope Benedict XVI recently became the first Pope to resign since 1415, and the first to do so of his own free will and for no nefarious purpose since the founding of the Catholic Church. But what happens next?
The role of the Pope stretches back to the Roman Empire – the Pope’s Latin title is ‘Pontifex Maximus’, the great bridge-builder, signifying his role as the bridge between man and God.
When the Pope dies – or resigns – the Church is in a state of sede vacante – ‘the chair is empty’, and a meeting in Rome of the most senior bishops, known as cardinals, is called to elect from among themselves a new pope.
These meetings are known as conclaves, and are held under lock and key in the Vatican. For the voting, cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel, usually better-known for the armies of tourists trooping through to marvel at Michaelangelo’s ceiling. Until 1996, they had to sleep in a makeshift camp in the Papal palace, with rooms created by hanging sheets on ropes, and bathrooms shared between a dozen at a time. However, with cardinals at an average age of over 75, Pope John Paul II had separate accommodation built for the cardinals, and subsequent conclaves have been more comfortable affairs.
All cardinals under the age of 80 can vote, and electing a pope can take a long time, as a two-thirds majority is required, votes are anonymous and campaigning for the position is frowned upon. There can be up to four ballots a day, and many elections in the middle ages took weeks or months, although in recent times, a day or two has sufficed.
After each ballot, the votes are counted and burnt. If a pope has been elected, a chemical is added to the ballots so that white smoke rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
The conclave to elect the successor to Benedict XVI will be held in March of this year, and on the evidence of recent conclave, it will be completed speedily. The Cardinal Protodeacon will step out on to the balcony of St Peter’s and declare ‘Habemus Papam’ – Latin for ‘We have a Pope’. And for the first time in 600 years, his predecessor will watch him take the throne.