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Conclave: Electing a New Pope

By Amanda Milewski

Upon the death of the Pope, a monumental sequence of events unfolds, culminating in a process known as the conclave whereby a new Pope is elected to lead the Roman Catholic faith.

Beneath Michelangelo's revered ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, the College of Cardinals, led by the Cardinal Camerlegno (Cardinal Chamberlain), Eduardo Martinez Somalo, begins the arduous process of selecting the pope's successor. The Cardinalate currently consists of 117 cardinals from all over the world. In the conclave, an event enduring little change since the thirteenth century, the cardinals take an oath of secrecy, that if broken renders the offender automatically excommunicated from the church. There are no televisions, radios, or newspapers allowed inside the conclave.

The Cardinal Electors, almost all of whom were appointed by Pope John Paul II, will vote in a very thorough process of secret balloting where a two-thirds majority is needed to elect a new Pope. The College may vote up to four times a day, but if a new Pope has not been chosen by the third day, then the cardinals cease the voting process for a day of prayer and reflection. Following the day of prayer, the cardinals will commence for another seven votes, then another day of prayer. If after 12 days a pope has still not been elected, then the two-thirds majority vote is negated and a vote by simple majority is instated.

The first indication to the outside world that a new pope has been elected is the telling smoke signals. After each voting session a smoke signal is given by burning the ballots. If the voting session is inconclusive, straw is added to the burning ballots to produce black smoke. Conversely, white smoke signals that a new pope has been chosen.

In the past the College usually elects a cardinal that has been under consideration for some time. The two requirements for eligibility for the papacy are that the candidates must be a man and Catholic. Although any Catholic male is technically eligible, history shows that the candidates are always cardinals.

What is new in this upcoming papal election is the doctrine of Vatican II, which no longer requires cardinals to study Latin. Therefore, the issue of a language barrier is a potential problem that the College may face, since many of the cardinals for the first time in history, will not share a common language.

Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 and has since been revered by Catholics as well as other Christian denominations, Jews, and Muslims for being a "Pope for the people." More than any of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II traveled the world, visiting and praying with the people of the area. Many attribute the restoration of the Catholic Church to Pope John Paul II. Much speculation has occurred regarding the Pope's successor. The outcome of the conclave is widely anticipated and only when we hear the Latin phrase "Habemus Papam" come from the dean of the cardinals will the world know who the next Pope will be.

About The Author

Amanda Milewski is a contributing writer for the Pope Blog - Conclave Edition (


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