Catholic Company / Magazine

The Papal Conclave & Election Process

Mar 04, 2013 by

The College of Cardinals are gathering in Rome today (Monday, March 4, 2013) and will soon announce the start date of the conclave which will elect the new Pope, the successor of Pope Benedict XVI.

After the news hit of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, we interviewed one of our diocesan priests, Fr. Matthew Kauth, about the papal conclave process.  Just last summer Fr. Kauth completed four years of doctorate study in Rome. You can watch our Interview with Fr. Kauth: The Conclave Process & the New Pope here.

Pope Benedict XVI's resignation took effect on February 28, 2013.  According to Canon Law there is a period of 15 days from the vacancy of the Chair of St. Peter (called the Sede Vacante) to the start of the conclave. This allowed time for the papal funeral arrangements. However, because there was no funeral which led to this sede vacante, Pope Benedict XVI changed the rules to allow the conclave to begin sooner.  This event is one for the history books, because it's the first conclave in 719 years to take place with the previous pope still alive.  This is the now famous precedent to Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, when Celestine V resigned as Pope and was still living when Boniface VII was elected in 1294.

The conclave is the gathering of cardinals eligible to vote in the election of a new Pope.  All cardinals under the age of 80 at the time of the sede vacante are eligible to vote.  The cardinals are strictly shut out from the outside word and from any outside communication. 'Conclave' means 'with key'; the cardinals are literally locked up until the election is complete.  There will be 115 cardinals voting to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI (although 117 are eligible, 2 of these will not be voting).  Of these, there are 11 Americans.  These are:

Cardinal Rigali (retired, Philadelphia)

Cardinal Mahony (retired, Los Angeles)

Cardinal Levada (retired, Roman Curia)

Cardinal George (Chicago)

Cardinal O'Brien (Roman Curia)

Cardinal Wuerl (Washington, D.C.)

Cardinal O'Malley (Boston)

Cardinal Burke (Roman Curia)

Cardinal DiNardo (Galveston-Houston)

Cardinal Harvey (Roman Curia)

Cardinal Dolan (New York)

The Cardinals will vote in the Sistine Chapel (pictured).  The Sistine Chapel is located in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City. The cardinals gather together each day and simply begin voting by writing their choice on a ballot.  They carry their ballot to the altar and place it in an urn.  A series of votes takes place over the course of a few or many days, however long it takes until one cardinal obtains a 2/3 plus 1 majority.  Three cardinals are chosen to count the votes while three other cardinals verify the counts.  These men are selected at random once the conclave begins.

Three urns are used for the ballots.  The first urn collects the ballots, the second urn will be used to collect the ballot of any cardinal confined to his room in case of illness, and the third urn is used to place the ballots after they have been verified.  From this third urn the ballots are burned with fire, causing the traditional plume of smoke to rise from the famous smoke stack.  Black smoke means no pope elected (no majority) and white smoke means there's a new pope in the house.

The newly elected Pope immediately chooses his new name, is dressed in his papal attire (which has already been made ready), the bells of St. Peter's are struck, and he is presented to the College of Cardinals who pledge their obedience to the new Pontiff.  Then the new Pontiff is led to the famous apartment window where he will be shown to the world overlooking St. Peter's Square. The Pope then blesses the crowd gathered for the historic event.

Here is how it looked when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI and presented to St. Peter's Square.  We should expect to see something that looks like this in a few short weeks.  It is expected that we will have a new Holy Father by Easter!