Most of the major players are cardinals and archbishops from around the world who currently hold Vatican positions.
Death and Funeral
At the death of a pope, the prefect of the papal household, a post presently held by American Archbishop James M. Harvey, informs the camerlengo, or chamberlain, Spanish Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo.
The camerlengo then verifies the death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, and the vice camerlengo, Bishop Ettore Cunial.
The custom of striking the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer to confirm his death lasted into the 20th century but is no longer followed. No autopsy is performed.
The camerlengo informs the vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, that the pope is dead, and Ruini, in turn, tells the people of Rome. The camerlengo breaks the pope's Fisherman's ring and seal and locks and seals the pope's private apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
Funeral rites are celebrated for nine consecutive days after the death with the actual funeral Mass and burial -- in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica -- taking place between the fourth and sixth day. The camerlengo arranges the funeral in keeping with instructions that were left by the pope.
Pending the election of a new pope, all but three of the cardinals and archbishops who head the congregations, councils, commissions and other bodies making up the Roman Curia, the central administrative bodies of the church, leave office. Their secretaries attend to day-to-day affairs, and decisions are provisional until confirmed by a new pope.
The exceptions are: the camerlengo, who takes charge of property and money matters; the vicar of Rome, who continues to provide for the pastoral needs of Romans; and the major penitentiary, American Cardinal Francis Stafford, the official who grants absolutions and dispensations. The camerlengo is assisted by three cardinals under the age of 80, who are chosen by lot every three days.
The Conclave Opens
The word conclave is derived from the Latin cum, meaning with, and clave, meaning key. It was first used by Pope Gregory X in July 1274 in a proclamation regulating the procedure for electing a pope in a meeting place that can be securely locked.
The conclave should open 15 days after the death of a pope but can be postponed to 20 days if circumstances warrant. All cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the new pope. Pope Paul VI limited the number of cardinal-electors to 120, but John Paul II has exceeded that number in his appointments; currently, 117 are eligible.
The cardinals live in seclusion in the recently constructed Domus Sanctae Marthae inside the Vatican walls. They meet to vote under Michelangelo's famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, which is next door to St. Peter's Basilica.
Once the conclave begins, a cardinal-elector may leave only because of illness or other serious reason accepted by a majority of his fellow cardinals. The doctors, nurses, confessors, masters of liturgical ceremonies, sacristans and various priest assistants and housekeeping and catering staff who attend to the cardinals' needs must swear never to tell anything they learn about the election.
The conclave opens in the morning with a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon, the cardinals, vested in scarlet robes, walk in procession in order of seniority from the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel to the chant of the ninth century Latin hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus."
The cardinals take an oath of secrecy. They swear to accept no interference in the election and to observe the rules set down in the Apostolic Constitution on the election of a pope. They also swear that whomever they elect will carry out the mission of pastor of the universal church and will "affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See."
The master of pontifical liturgical celebrations then orders all those not taking part or assisting in the conclave to leave, using the Latin phrase "Extra omnes" (All out). Assisted by the undersecretary of state, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, he closes off the cardinals' hotel and Sistine Chapel.
Following a meditation by a priest, whom the cardinals have chosen earlier, all those remaining who are not cardinals leave the chapel. Voting can begin immediately or the next morning.
Each day of balloting starts with the selection of three scrutineers who count the votes, three infirmarians who collect the ballots of any cardinals too ill to go to the chapel, and three revisers who review the ballot count.
They are chosen by lot with the cardinal-deacon lowest in seniority, Attilio Nicora, president of the administration of the Apostolic See, drawing the lots. The members of the College of Cardinals are divided into the ranks of cardinals-deacon, cardinals-priest and cardinals-bishop in ascending importance.
Elaborate precautions are taken to ensure that there is no fraud of any kind.
Each cardinal, disguising his handwriting, enters the name of his choice on a two-inch wide rectangular card on which is printed at the top the Latin phrase "Eligo in Summum Pontificem" (I elect as Supreme Pontiff). He folds the ballot lengthwise to conceal the name.
The cardinals walk to the altar one-by-one in order of precedence, holding the ballot aloft. Each prelate kneels briefly to pray and on rising declares, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one whom, before God, I think should be elected." He then places the ballot on a paten, or plate, which covers a receptacle, usually a chalice. Lifting the paten, he allows the ballot to drop into the receptacle.
The cardinal infirmarians leave the chapel carrying a locked box with a slit top to collect the ballots of sick cardinals.
Counting the Ballots
Once all the cardinals have voted, the first scrutineer mixes the ballots by shaking the receptacle. The third scrutineer counts the still-folded ballots. If the number of ballots is not the same as the number of electors the ballots are burned, and the cardinals immediately vote again.
If the number of ballots is correct the scrutineers begin the count seated at a table in front of the altar. The first scrutineer unfolds each ballot, silently notes the name written on it and hands it to the second scrutineer, who does the same and hands it on to the third, who reads the name aloud and records it. The cardinals may also keep a tally.
At the end of the count, the scrutineers announce the total number of votes each candidate has received. Any candidate who has received two-thirds of the votes of those present is elected pope. If the total is not divisible by three, the required number of votes for election is two-thirds plus one.
After the results are announced the third scrutineer threads the ballots together with a needle, which he inserts through the word "eligo." He ties a knot at each end and turns the bundle of ballots and the scrutineers' records over to the three revisers to be checked.
If all is in order the scrutineers, secretary of the conclave and masters of ceremonies, who have been readmitted to the chapel by the junior cardinal-deacon, burn the ballots and all notes taken by the scrutineers and cardinals in a special stove. Since 1903, the masters of ceremonies have added chemicals to color the smoke. If the tens of thousands of people waiting in St. Peter's Square see white smoke they know that the pope has been elected; if black smoke, he has not.
The only remaining record of the voting is a document that the camerlengo prepares at the end of the election giving the results of each session. The document is approved by the assisting cardinals, given to the new pope and then placed in a sealed envelope in the archives to be opened only with papal permission.
Breaking an Impasse
If the voting is inconclusive, the cardinals may continue to cast ballots twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. If they still have not elected a pope after three days voting is suspended for a day of prayer, informal discussion and a brief spiritual exhortation by the senior cardinal-deacon.
If the impasse continues, there are seven more votes, a suspension and exhortation by the senior cardinal priest, followed by another seven votes, a suspension and exhortation by the senior cardinal-bishop and a final seven votes.
John Paul's new rules provide that at this point, which is about 12 days after voting started, the requirement for a two-thirds majority may be waived, and the pope may be chosen by an absolute majority. The cardinals also have the option of limiting the candidates to the two who received the largest number of votes in the last round.
The New Pope
Once the election is decided, the cardinal dean asks the winner, "Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?" It has been many centuries since the answer was no; St. Philip Benizi, for one, fled a conclave in 1271 and hid until another candidate was chosen.
The new pope is asked by what name he wants to be called. For the past 1,000 years, it has been the custom for the pope to change his name upon being elected. The last to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in 1555. The cardinals make an act of homage and obedience to the new pope and join in a prayer of thanksgiving.
The senior cardinal-deacon then steps out onto the central balcony of St. Peter's Square. He pronounces a Latin formula including the phrase, "Habemus papam (We have a pope)" and announces the name the new pontiff has taken. The pope appears and gives his first "urbi et orbi" blessing to the city of Rome and the world.