Editor’s Note: This was written a couple years ago when it was most common for a pope to die before a new one was elected. A handful of popes have “resigned” as Pope Benedict XVI did, but not since Pope Gregory XII in 1415.
Have you ever wondered how a pope is elected? The truth is, it’s a very secretive and traditional process that is guided by the Holy Spirit and surrounded with tons of prayer.
If a Pope Dies
If the pope dies, a representative of the Sacred College (of cardinals) takes a silver hammer and hits the dead pope on the forehead three times. I’m serious. Then he calls him by his baptismal name, and then states, “The pope is dead.”
The fisherman’s ring (that the pope is wearing) and the papal seals are then broken and the cardinals from around the world are notified and called to Rome. The pope’s body is placed in a simple coffin of cypress wood, which is enclosed in lead, then is finally placed in a casket of oak or chestnut.
Commence the Conclave
Now it is time to have all of the cardinals gather for the conclave. The conclave is a secret meeting of all of the College of Cardinals, in which they are locked in a part of the Vatican palace, where all access is walled off except for one door only (which once the cardinals enter is locked from both the outside and inside).
They will remain in this part of the Vatican palace until a new pope is elected. Each cardinal is given a small apartment (complete with a crucifix, bed, table and a few chairs), which they will reside in until the end of the conclave. All communication with the outside is strictly forbidden. Each cardinal spends much time on his own in prayer and reflection when not in the daily general gatherings.
The conclave usually starts on the 11th day after the pope dies. It begins in the morning with a mass, then all cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel (the door is bolted after they enter) and each takes his assigned seat (which is drawn by lot). Each chair has a canopy over it and a desk with materials in front of it. Now they get down to the work of electing a new pope.
Did you know there are actually four ways a person can be elected pope . . . and that any baptized Catholic male who has reached the age of reason can be elected? However, only cardinals have been chosen as pope for the last 500 years.
Now back to the four ways. They are called 'scrutinium,' 'compromissium,' 'accessus,' and 'quasi-inspiratio.'
Choosing the Pope
The most common way is the 'scrutinium', or secret ballot. Each cardinal writes his choice (he cannot vote for himself) on a ballot, then folds it, placing it on a paten (that’s the plate that is on top of the chalice that holds the body of Christ at Mass), then tilts the paten so that the vote falls into the chalice.
As each cardinal places his ballot on the paten, he says out loud “I call to witness the Lord Jesus Christ, Who will be my judge, that I am electing the one according to God I think ought to be elected.”
A two-thirds majority is required for a new pope to be elected. Oh and there is security here. Each vote is checked three times and tallied! Votes are taken twice a day until a new successor is found.
If a two-thirds vote is not found, then the ballots are taken and burned with straw in the Sistine Chapel chimney. This lets those outside know that a new pope has not been elected yet (the smoke is thick and darker because of the straw).
The other three ways a pope can be elected are rarely ever used.
“Compromissium” is only used when after many votes a 2/3 majority is still not achieved that all of the cardinals unanimously delegate a certain number of cardinals to make choice.
“Accessus” is a form of voting that is used after the first official ballot (if a 2/3 majority is not reached) and basically gives them the chance to change their vote.
The final way, “quasi-inspiritio” is where after no agreement has been reached in a session, a cardinal addresses the assembly, and moved by the Spirit, proclaims aloud the candidate of their choice and all the cardinals assembled proclaim aloud the same candidate.
Will he accept?
Alright so once they have decided on someone, that person is asked if he will accept the election and by which name he chooses to be called as pope (his new name is different than his Baptismal name … signifying a change in his essence, just like Simon to Peter).
Once he agrees, all of the other cardinals lower their canopies, leaving only the canopy of the newly elected raised. The newly elected pope then puts on his papal garments, the fisherman’s ring is placed on his hand, and all the cardinals present pay him their respects and pledge their obedience to him.
Finally, he is introduced to the people, who have been waiting in St. Peter’s to see the new pope. Usually the new pope will appear on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s square to give a blessing. The conclave is over, and the reign of a new pope begins!