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How the Pope is Elected

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published: 2/5/05
updated: 6/27/13

Books on Papal Elections



The period between the death of one pope and the election of the next is governed by complex and detailed procedures with a long history. In the case of a deceased pope (the pope can resign, though it is extremely rare), the papal funeral lasts for nine days. No later than 20 days after the pope's death, the next pope is elected by 120 cardinals (high-ranking bishops appointed by the pope). Voting is done by secret ballot in conclave, a locked meeting in the Sistine Chapel of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. A two-thirds majority plus one must be reached to elect a pope. For centuries, popes have been selected from among the cardinals, though any Catholic man qualifies. When a pope has been elected, the ballots are burned, causing white smoke to appear above the Vatican. If a vote has failed to reach a majority, water or a chemical is added so that the smoke is black.

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