Electing a Pope

Weeks after the resignation of Benedict XVI, Cardinals from the Catholic Church gathered in Rome to choose a new pope. There was plenty of buzz about conclaves, interregnum and other words that aren’t part of our everyday vocabulary. So just how was the new pope elected?

BY: Lorraine Shelstad


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From the Latin con ‘with’ and clavis ‘key’. A conclave is the gathering of cardinals to elect the next pope. The reference to ‘with a key’ is because the cardinals lock themselves into the Sistine Chapel when the vote is held. A cardinal who leaves, other than for ill health, cannot be re-admitted to the room. The cardinals are not allowed to communicate with anyone other than those in the College of Cardinals and no one else is allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. This is to insure that those voting are not influenced by public opinion, the media or anyone else outside the College.

The interregnum is the period of discontinuity between the pope’s death or resignation and the election of a new pope. The cardinals use this time to get to know one another and to talk about the needs of the Church. They also pray together and individually. It is a time when Catholics all over the world pray that the Holy Spirit will guide in the choosing of a new pope.

Votes are held each day and when a 2/3 majority of votes has been reached a pope has been elected. The canopies above all those present, except the person elected as pope, is lowered. That person knows then that he has been selected. The ballots are burned in a stove that has an added chemical making the smoke from the chimney white so that people outside will know a pope has been elected. The cardinal is asked if he accepts the decision and he chooses his new name. From the central balcony which overlooks St. Peter’s Square, one of the cardinals announces Habameus papum (We have a Pope!) to the people waiting. The new Pope then gives his first blessing. In the last few conclaves held a decision has been made within 2-3 days.

Voting Cardinals 2013

There were 115 Cardinals who voted for a new Pope (one from Scotland resigned after allegations of inappropriate behaviour and one from Indonesia is too ill to travel). Amongst the Cardinals present is one who will be the next Pope.

As in the past, the majority of the Cardinals are from Europe but there is a hope among some that this time the new pope will be from another continent. Africa is the continent where the Catholic Church is growing the fastest but 45% of the world’s Catholics are in Latin America.

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Related Topics: Faith, Pope, Benedict XVI, Election