How the Pope is Elected

In Roman Catholicism, the Pope - also known as: the Supreme Pontiff, the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, and the Servant of the Servants of God - is the spiritual leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics worldwide. The period between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of the next is governed by complex and detailed procedures.

The meticulous nature of papal elections is by necessity, however, for over the course of the 2,000-year history of the papacy, the period after a pope's death or resignation has often been one of chaos, confusion and corruption. As with the death of an important emperor who has not designated a successor or even an ordinary family member who dies without a will, the importance of providing clear directions in advance is clear. The following article provides all the details on the process of electing a new pope, from the moment of the current pontiff's death or resignation to the moment a new pope is proclaimed to the waiting world.

After one of the longest pontificates in history, Pope John Paul II passed away on April 2, 2005 at 9:37 PM Vatican time. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was elected Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005. Following Pope Benedict's resignation, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the first pontiff from Latin America on March 13, 2013, taking the name Pope Francis.

Who Elects the Pope?

The current pope does not designate a successor nor is the pope elected by popular vote of all Catholics, although both of these methods have been used at various times in the past. {2} Instead, the pope is elected by 120 elector cardinals. Cardinals are bishops who are directly appointed by the pope at various points during his pontificate. Although they have many other jobs to keep them busy during a pope's (often lengthy) time in office, the primary role of cardinals is to elect the next pope. There are usually more than 120 cardinals at any one time, but not all are elector cardinals. Under current church law, cardinals must be under 80 years of age, of sound mind, and present in person at the elections to be eligible to vote.

Currently there are 184 cardinals, 121 of which are eligible to vote. {3} Pope John Paul II appointed 42 of these in 2001 and 26 more on October 21, 2003. Naturally, the pope chose cardinals who agree with him on issues that are important to him, so it is likely that under the next pope "we will see more continuity than change." {4} Currently, the cardinals who are eligible to vote hail from 54 different countries around the world. Sixty cardinals are from Europe (two from the U.K.), 18 are from North America (11 from the U.S.), 18 are from Central and South America, 12 are from Africa, 11 are from Asia, and two are from Oceania (one from Australia and one from New Zealand). {5}

The General Congregations of Cardinals

Shortly after a pope's death, the cardinals begin meeting once daily in General Congregations. All cardinal electors are required to attend these meetings. Cardinals who are ineligible to vote are also permitted to attend if they wish.

The purpose of the General Congregations is to take care of important business related to the pope's funeral and the election of the next pope. During the period between popes, the cardinals appear with uncovered rochets (a white tunic worn under the red robes) and canopies are placed over their seats in conclave (see below) to symbolize that supreme authority over the church temporarily rests in their hands.

As is customary, Pope John Paul II issued formal instructions regarding the procedures for electing his successor. These were included in the above-mentioned Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis issued in 1996. The pontiff's instructions include the following oath to be taken by the cardinals at the first meeting of the General Congregations:

We, the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, of the Order of Bishops, of Priests and of Deacons, promise, pledge and swear, as a body and individually, to observe exactly and faithfully all the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, and to maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff or those which, by their very nature, during the vacancy of the Apostolic See, call for the same secrecy.

In the next meetings, the cardinals are to accomplish the following, also laid out by Pope John Paul II:

  • Fix the day, hour and manner in which the body of the deceased Pope shall be brought to the Vatican Basilica in order to be exposed for the homage of the faithful;
  • Make all necessary arrangements for the funeral rites of the deceased Pope, to be celebrated for nine consecutive days, determining when they are to begin, in such a way that burial will take place, except for special reasons, between the fourth and sixth day after death;
  • See to it that the rooms of the St. Martha's House are made ready for the suitable lodging of the cardinal electors, that rooms suitable for servants, doctors, priests, etc. are also made ready, and that all necessary arrangements are made to prepare the Sistine Chapel so that the election process can be carried out in a smooth and orderly manner and with maximum discretion;
  • Entrust to two ecclesiastics known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority the task of presenting to the Cardinals two well-prepared meditations on the problems facing the Church at the time and on the need for careful discernment in choosing the new Pope and fix the day and the time when the first of these meditations is to be given;
  • Approve expenses incurred from the death of the Pope until the election of his successor;
  • Read any documents left by the deceased Pope for the College of Cardinals;
  • Arrange for the destruction of the Fisherman's Ring and of the lead seal with which Apostolic Letters are despatched;
  • Make provision for the assignment of rooms by lot to the cardinal electors;
  • Set the day and hour of the beginning of the voting process.

Papal Conclave

No earlier than 15 days and no later than 20 days after a pope's death, the College of Cardinals meets in conclave to elect a new pope. The word conclave comes from the Latin cum clavis, meaning "with key." The word can be used for any secret meeting, but it is especially suited to the papal elections - the cardinals are literally locked into a room until they have elected a new pope. Cardinals are not permitted to have any contact with the outside world (no television, no newspapers, no letters, no phone calls) during the papal elections under pain of excommunication.

All cardinals are allowed entry into conclave, even those who do not vote. Each voting cardinal is also permitted to bring with him a secretary and a servant (and, in the case of illness, a doctor). All those admitted into conclave who do not vote are sworn to secrecy and completely sequestered as well.

Conclave takes place in the Sistine Chapel, a small room with the famous ceiling painted by Michaelangelo next door to St. Peter's Basilica. Pope John Paul II approved the continued use of the Sistine Chapel for papal elections, calling it a place "where everything is conducive to an awareness of the presence of God." {6}

During conclave, which can take days, the cardinals sleep in St. Martha's House, an area inside the Vatican (just 350 meters from the Sistine Chapel) with 130 rooms. Other Vatican employees live in these rooms, but they will vacate them during conclave. The provision of St. Martha's was introduced by Pope John Paul II - previously, the cardinal electors lived in uncomfortable makeshift quarters within the Basilica.

Who Can Be Elected Pope?

Under canon law, any Catholic man in good standing can be elected pope. Since 1522 he has invariably been one of the cardinals, but any bishop, priest, deacon, or Catholic layman could be selected. If a non-bishop were elected as pope, he would have to be ordained a bishop before taking the throne, for the pope is also the Bishop of Rome. Of the nine 20th-century popes, their average age at the time of election was 65 years old, with John XXIII the oldest at 76 and John Paul II the youngest at 58.

Naturally, the period before and during conclave is a time of great speculation worldwide as to who will (or should) be elected. Those considered especially qualified for the job are referred to as papabile in Italian, which basically means"pope-able." But the favorites always seem to be the ones that are passed over, and it has become a common saying: "Go into conclave a pope; come out a cardinal."

The Papal Voting Process

Traditionally, each pope issues a decree detailing how his successor shall be elected. Popes usually make small adjustments to the procedures, although the basic method remains the same. Pope John Paul II detailed the procedures for electing the 266th pope in the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis. In this document, the pontiff explains that his changes are occasioned by the revisions to Canon Law made by the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), but he has generally determined "not to depart in substance from the wise and venerable tradition already established."

Pope John Paul II established the following rules for electing his successor:

  • The maximum number of elector cardinals is 120.
  • Any cardinal who turns 80 years old before the day the papacy is vacated cannot take part in the election.
  • A two-thirds-plus-one majority is required to elect a pope.
  • For as long as necessary, two votes are held in the morning and afternoon, for a total of four per day.
  • If a new pope is not selected after 12 to 13 days, the cardinals may choose to allow selection of a new pope by a simple majority (i.e., 50% plus one). {UMG}

There are no hanging chads in conclave. The pope is elected by write-in vote on a secret ballot. Each cardinal is given a small rectangular ballot with the Latin words Eligo in Summum Pontificem, "I elect as supreme pontiff," printed at the top. He silently indicates his vote by writing a person's name with a pen below those words.

After writing his vote, the cardinal folds the ballot twice, holds it in the air, and carries it to the Sistine Chapel's altar. He declares aloud, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." He places his ballot on a paten (plate) that is resting on a chalice (cup), then uses the plate to drop the ballot into the chalice. He bows before the altar, then returns to his seat. The use of the paten and chalice for this purpose is significant in two ways: they are the vessels used to serve the sacred bread and wine in Mass and using the plate makes it hard for a cardinal to cast more than one ballot.

Tallying the Votes

After all the cardinals have voted, the votes are tallied by three scrutineers, who are chosen from among the electors by lot at each new vote. The scrutineers sit at a table in the front of the Sistine Chapel by the altar. The first scrutineer uses the paten as a cover and shakes the chalice to mix the ballots. The third scrutineer then counts the votes without unfolding them. If the number of the ballots does not match the number of cardinals voting, all the ballots are immediately burned and the voting starts again.

If the right number of ballots has been received, the tallying procedure begins. The steps are as follows:

  1. The first scrutineer takes a ballot, notes the name on it, and passes it to the second scrutineer.
  2. The second scrutineer notes the name and passes it to the third scrutineer.
  3. The third scrutineer reads aloud the name on the ballot, pierces the ballot with a needle through the word Eligo at the top of the ballot, and slides the ballot onto a string of thread.
  4. Each elector notes the name that is read.
  5. Once all ballots are read, the scrutineers write down the official count on a separate sheet of paper.
  6. The third scrutineer ties the ends of the thread on which the ballots are placed in a knot to preserve the vote.
  7. The ballots are placed in a receptacle.

After the vote, all the ballots and notes are burned. If the proper majority has been reached and the elected person has accepted, white smoke appears above the Vatican to inform the anxiously-awaiting world that a pope has been elected. If a pope has not been elected, water or a special chemical is added to the ballots so that black smoke appears. The vote is repeated for as long as it takes until a pope has been elected. In 1978, Pope John Paul II was elected after eight ballots over two days.

New Pope, New Name

As soon as a majority vote has been reached, the Cardinal Dean asks the pope-elect (who is invariably already present) two questions: (1) whether he accepts the nomination and (2) by what name he wishes to be known. If he accepts, his pontificate begins at that moment and will continue until his resignation or death.

Choosing a Papal Name

For centuries it has been customary for newly elected popes to take a new name. This began with the election of Pope John II in 533, whose birth name was Mercurius. Mercurius felt it would be wrong for a successor of St. Peter to bear the name of a pagan god (Mercury), so he changed his name to honor a previous pope.

In 983, another pope took the name John XIV because his given name was Peter, and reverence for the first pope precluded his becoming Peter II. Some early non-Italian popes chose names that were easier for Italians to pronounce. Since the 10 th century, nearly all newly elected popes have taken new names.

In addition to practical considerations, the pope's new name symbolizes the new life he enters into upon assuming the throne. It also imitates the renaming of St. Peter (originally named Simon) by Jesus himself. The name chosen by a newly elected pope is usually that of a saint or an admired previous pope. Pope John Paul II, who was born Karol Józef Wojtyla ("voh-TEE-wah"), chose the name John Paul II to honor the previous pope, John Paul. John Paul I, whose pontificate lasted only 33 days before he died, had chosen his name in honor two previous popes, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI.

Proclaiming and Installing the New Pope

Once the new pope has accepted the job and indicated his new name, he immediately dons the papal vestments, a skull cap and white soutane. (The Italian family business that makes the papal vestments will have several different sizes prepared in advance.) Each cardinal pays homage to the new pope in turn.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals then steps onto the main balcony of the Vatican and declares to the world, Habemus Papam! "We have a Pope!" His Holiness then appears on the balcony and delivers his Apostolic Blessing to the waiting world. After his election in 1978, Pope John Paul II broke the tradition of speaking only the Blessing, adding the following:

Praise be Jesus Christ! Dear brothers and sisters, we are all still grieved after the death of our most beloved John Paul I. And now the eminent cardinals have called a new Bishop of Rome. They have called him from a far country [Poland]: far, but always near through the communion of faith and in the Christian tradition. I was afraid to receive this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ and in total confidence in his Mother, the most holy Madonna. I don't know if I can make myself clear in your -- in our -- Italian language. If I make a mistake, you will correct me. And so I present myself to you all, to confess our common faith, our hope, our trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church, and also to start anew on this road of history and the Church, with the help of God and with the help of men. {7}

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI also made brief remarks before the Blessing, saying:

Dear brothers and sisters, after the Great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in the Lord's vineyard. I am comforted by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and act even with insufficient instruments. And above all, I entrust myself to your prayers. With the joy of the risen Lord and confidence in His constant help, we will go forward. The Lord will help us and Mary, His most holy mother, will be alongside us. Thank you.

Before the cardinals return home, a formal inauguration or "Installation" of the pope is held. This ceremony, colloquially known as the Coronation of the Pope, is held in St. Peter's Basilica. After a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, each cardinal individually express his homage to the new pope. Traditionally, this has been done on bended knee, but at the Installation of Pope John Paul II each cardinal remained standing as he recited his homage, received the pope's embrace and exchanged the Kiss of Peace.

During his short reign, Pope John Paul I did away with the traditional ritual in which the pope is carried around St. Peter's Square on his papal throne then has the papal tiara placed on his head. Pope John Paul II has not resurrected this tradition, so the next coronation will not include it. The last pope to wear the papal tiara was Pope Paul VI, who ceremonially renounced its use at the end of the Second Vatican Council. The last two popes have also done away with the monarchial "we," in an effort to focus more on the pope's traditional title of Servant of the Servants of God. {8}

Pronouncing the Pope's Death

When a pope passes away, the prefect of the papal household (a cardinal, currently Bishop James Harvey) immediately informs the camerlengo of the pope's death. The camerlengo is the highest-ranking cardinal who, during the pope's lifetime, acts as the papal equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of State. The current camerlengo is Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo.

Upon the pope's death, temporary authority passes into the hands of the camerlengo and the College of Cardinals. The period during which the papal office is vacant is known as the sede vacante ("vacant seat").

The camerlengo's first job is to confirm the pope's death with a traditional ceremony. He gently raps the pontiff's forehead with a silver mallet and calls the pope by his birth name three times. If the pontiff does not respond by the third time, he is pronounced dead.

In modern times, the pope's personal physician is actually called in first to make an official pronouncement of death, then the camerlengo performs the ceremonial pronouncement.

Next, the camerlengo directs the issuance of a death certificate and removes the pope's ceremonial ring, the Ring of the Fisherman. Worn by all popes in the last 800 years, the Fisherman's Ring is a gold ring bearing an image of St. Peter casting his net from a boat, encircled by the current pope's name. It is a symbol of the pope's authority, and will be destroyed later at a meeting of the cardinals.

Autopsies are not performed on popes and no one may film or photograph the pope's body (recording his last words is also prohibited). The camerlengo may, however, authorize a photograph for documentary purposes once the pope has been dressed in full papal garments.

The prefect of the papal household then informs the Dean of the College of Cardinals of the pope's death. It is the Dean's job to tell the other cardinals and then the heads of all the nations the news. Of course, when the current pope dies, most people will hear the news through the media well before this formal procedure is completed. All cardinals (most of whom are archbishops in their home country) are to come to Vatican City as soon as possible after hearing the news.

The Novemdiales and Papal Funeral

One of the first duties of the College of Cardinals after the pope's death is to make funeral arrangements and begin the nine days (Novemdiales) of mourning and prayer for the deceased pope. During this nine-day period, the Swiss Guards outside St. Peter's Basilica lower their swords in mourning.

Funeral rites for the pope are governed by a church document called Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis (The Order of Service for the Burial of a Pontiff) and each pope normally issues further specifications. Pope John Paul II did so in a 1996 Apostolic Constitution entitled Universi Dominici Gregis (Of the Lord's Whole Flock), which also specifies the procedures for electing his successor. {1} These specifications depart little from papal tradition, however.

After being dressed in the papal vestments, two layers of white silk are placed over the pope's head and hands. The pope's body is then placed inside a cypress coffin, and that coffin is encased in two others. The second is a lead coffin engraved with the pope's name and the dates of his pontificate. The lead coffin is then placed in a third, unadorned coffin of elm.

The coffin is then closed and placed near the entrance of St. Peter's Basilica so the faithful can come to pay their respects and pray for the repose of his soul. Although the funeral rites last for nine days, the pontiff lies in state for just a few days before being buried. John Paul II instructed, in accordance with papal tradition, that he be buried between the fourth and sixth day after death. Popes are buried in the crypt beneath St. Peter's Basilica, which may be visited.

  1. Universi Dominici Gregis. 22 February, 1996.
  2. G.H. Joyce, "Election of the Popes." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII, 1911.
  3. College of Cardinals. The latest stats on the current college of cardinals.
  4. Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Papal Transition. America Magazine. Questions and answers on the pope's illness, death, and elections of the next pope.
  5. College of Cardinals.
  6. Universi Dominici Gregis.
  7. Delia Gallagher, "White Smoke Over the Sistine: The Night in 1978 That Stunned the World." Catholic Pages.
  8. Electing a Pope.
  9. Reese, Papal Transition.
Books on Papal Funerals and Elections
  • John Allen, Jr., Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election (2002). Written by a Vatican correspondent whose predictions for the next pope are listed above.
  • Frederic J. Baumgartner, Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections (2003). Reveals the bickering and politicking that has characterized some past conclaves.
  • Dan Brown, Angels & Demons (2001). Novel by the author of The Da Vinci Code centering on the papal elections, a shifty camerlengo, and the intersection of science and religion.
  • Peter Hebblethwaite, The Next Pope: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at How the Successor to John Paul II Will Be Elected and Where He Will Lead the Catholic Church (2000).
  • Wendy J. Reardon, The Deaths of the Popes: Comprehensive Accounts, Including Funerals, Burial Places and Epitaphs. Provides full accounts of the deaths of all the popes from Peter to John Paul II, includes interesting accounts of strange burials of some popes, and prints many epitaphs never before translated into English.