Catholic Classroom: Choosing a New Pope
Question: How is the pope chosen?
As the leader of the Catholic Church on earth, the pope takes on an important role as a shepherd for Catholics around the world. We can trace our papal heritage as a Church back to Peter, whom Jesus appointed as the first pope. But how is a new pope chosen today?
A new pope is chosen when the previous pope dies or resigns. Papal resignation is rare, but it is a part of our recent history: Pope Francis was elected after his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, resigned.
On the occasion of a vacancy in the papacy, the College of Cardinals convenes in the Vatican. They begin by celebrating Mass and invoking the Holy Spirit to guide them in choosing the new pope. Then, they start to vote by secret ballot. Cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote, and there is a limit of 120 cardinal electors. Cardinals are not allowed contact with the media or people outside the conclave during the process of election.
All discussions and votes of the conclave are held in the Sistine Chapel. On the first day of the conclave, one vote is taken, and the votes are recorded and counted. A two-thirds majority is needed for a pope to be elected. If no consensus is reached on the first day, then the conclave continues on subsequent days. Four votes are held per day: two in the morning and two in the afternoon. When a vote is inconclusive, the cardinals burn the ballots and release black smoke over the chapel.
When an individual receives two-thirds of the votes and consents to becoming pope, the cardinals release white smoke above the chapel to indicate that a pope has been chosen. The senior cardinal deacon then announces, “Habemus Papam”—“We have a pope”—from the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, and the new pope emerges in his vestments to offer a blessing.
Today, let us pray for Pope Francis and for all the cardinals who uphold the dignity of the papacy in the service of the Church.