A: Day-to-day operations are handled by the Vatican curia, the central bureaucracy. All prelates who head Vatican agencies resign after the death of a pope. Provisions are made to oversee the papal household, the spiritual needs of Romans and to grant absolutions.
Q: What does the word "conclave" mean?
A: The word comes from the Latin, "with a key," referring to the tradition of locking the doors until cardinals elect a winner.
Q: Who is eligible to be elected pope?
A: Technically, any baptized male Catholic is eligible -- meaning anyone from Mel Gibson to Ted Kennedy to the bishop of Buffalo are eligible. Since 1378, however, new popes have come from within the College of Cardinals.
Q: Who sets the rules for how a pope is elected?
A: A 1996 document by Pope John Paul II, "Universi Dominici Gregis," lays out the framework for the conclave. Other details and traditions have evolved over time.
Q: What language is used in a conclave?
A: Traditionally, Latin has been the lingua franca of the church. However, with a global church, Latin has fallen away. While some details already call for Latin -- "extra omnes!" (all out!) is used to shoo everyone out of the Sistine Chapel -- others will likely be replaced by Italian, Spanish, English or any of the above.
Q: Does a conclave ever convene for any other reason?
A: No. Any pope can call together cardinals for advice or any other purpose, but a conclave is only used to elect a pope.
Q: Who may participate in a conclave?
A: There are 117 cardinals who are under the age of 80 and thus eligible to participate in the conclave. Older retired cardinals may participate in discussions leading up the conclave but may not vote.
Q: Are women or laypeople involved?
A: Outside of cooks or housekeepers, no. Only cardinals -- who by definition are male priests -- may participate.
Q: Who are the Americans who will participate?
A: There are 11 American cardinals who are eligible to participate. Seven of the cardinals head archdioceses -- New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles; three hold positions in Rome and one is semi-retired. Two other American cardinals are too old to vote.
Q: When does the conclave begin?
A: The 1996 guidelines call for the conclave to begin between 15 and 20 days after the pope's death.
A: Absolutely not. The voting is conducted behind closed-doors under the tightest security. The conclave is closed to allow the cardinals to cast their votes without outside influence or pressure. Anyone associated with the conclave must take a vow of secrecy.
Q: Where is the conclave held?
A: Voting is held inside the Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo's famous ceiling. Cardinals will stay in the Casa Santa Marta, a $20 million hotel-style residence inside the Vatican walls built by Pope John Paul II. Cardinals may not leave the Vatican grounds until a conclave concludes.
Q: What are the factors likely to influence the voting?
A: Officially, the church says only the Holy Spirit will influence the results. But church watchers say a new pope will win based on several criteria: age, nationality, life experience, personality, and positions on major issues facing the church.
Q: Who are the front-runners?
A: It depends who you ask. John Paul II was the first non-Italian elected in 456 years, leading many to speculate about another foreigner. Traditional liberal-conservative labels are not useful; more crucial will be issues like a candidate's view on how decisions are made and how the church should relate to Islam. The old maxim usually applies: "He who goes in papabile (a candidate for pope) comes out as a cardinal."
Q: Could an American be elected pope?
A: Technically, yes, but in practice, no. Church-watchers say cardinals would not want to pick the world's most visible religious leader from the world's lone superpower. In short, the United States already dominates world affairs; it doesn't need to dominate the Catholic Church as well.
Q: Are overt campaigning or backroom deals allowed?
A: After the death of a pope, discussions prior to the conclave are expected, but campaigning is discouraged. Paper ballots are cast in silence, leaving discussions and arguments to be held outside the Sistine Chapel. Alliances are natural, but cardinals are forbidden to buy votes or make deals; John Paul II said his successor would not be bound by promises made prior to the election.
A: The first ballot may be held on the first afternoon of the conclave following morning Mass. After that, there are two ballots in the morning and two ballots in the afternoon until a pope is elected.