Posted on Leave a comment

The Election of a Pope – How it Works

The Election of a Pope.

Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI

This time last year we were awaiting the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland.  Where has the time gone? Those twelve months seem to have flown by. In this blog we focus on Election of a Pope in the Vatican nd how this works when another Pope dies or resigns.

Whenever I think of Pope Francis, I also remember his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who is of course still with us.  Benny (as he is fondly called) resigned on 28 February 2013, the first pope to relinquish office since Gregory XII in 1415. He did so on the grounds of declining health due to old age. It is indeed a unique situation to have two popes, albeit one an ex-pope living, as popes usually die in office.

In fact it is incorrect to call him an ex-pope: his proper title is Pope Emeritus Benedict.  The word ‘emeritus’ comes from the Latin and is an adjective that means ‘retired’, but is also used to honour the position once held by the retired person.  Pope Emeritus, means the honourable and former Pope.

So how exactly is the Pope elected?

The Cardinals

When a pope dies or resigns, the governance of the Catholic Church passes to the College of Cardinals.  Cardinals are bishops and Vatican officials from all over the world personally chosen by the pope, recognizable by their distinctive red vestments.

The head of the College of Cardinals is the Dean who is elected by the other Cardinals and approved by the Pope.  They assist him collegially when they gather in a consistory (solemn meeting) at his invitation to address questions of major importance.

Individual Cardinals also preside over an office of the Curia (governing bodies) or serve a papal commission.  E.g. when Pope Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger he was Prefect of the Sacred Congress for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Election

After a pope has died there is a 15 day period to celebrate the funeral Mass and burial of the pope, as well as a period of mourning. The papal ring is destroyed and the seal defaced.  Although their owner was obviously not dead, Pope Benedict’s ring and seal met a similar fate. Popes have worn the Ring of the Fisherman for more than 800 years.  The gold ring includes the image of St Peter in a boat fishing, encircled by the name of the current pope.

On the morning designated for the beginning of the conclave, the cardinal electors celebrate Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.  In the afternoon they gather together and process from the Pauline Chapel of the Palace of the Vatican to the Sistine Chapel, while singing Veni Creatot Spiritus.

Voting begins next morning but not before the Cardinals have taken solemn oaths of secrecy and responsibility under Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Judgment.  They have to surrender their mobile phones and any other electronic equipment.

Some Changes

The requirement of secrecy during and after the conclave was treated lightly until the last century.  In the nineteenth century, the cardinal electors, often living in the Lateran Palace, walked down the street to St John Lateran’s Cathedral, where they would vote, chatting away with the crowds that lined their path.  Only with the veto of the candidacy of Cardinal Rampola by the Austrian emperor Franz Josef in 1903 did the rules against campaigning before the conclave and talking about it afterward become strict

Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II made these violations punishable by the most solemn of excommunications.

During the twentieth century, the cardinal electors were locked in extremely uncomfortable quarters in the Sistine Chapel, but Pope John Paul ordered that henceforth the electors would live in the new hotel-like St. Martha’s House at the other side of the Vatican City and vote in the Sistine Chapel.

Pope John Paul’s rules also required a careful screening of the Sistine Chapel for bugs, but there is no assurance that such precautions can outwit modern electronic eavesdroppimg.

The Ballot

On the first afternoon of the conclave, the first ballot may be held.  There are two “scrutinies” each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and two ballots in each scrutiny.  Each cardinal writes on a ballot the name of his candidate and deposits it in a chalice on the chapel’s altar.  Three cardinals count the ballots.

If no one is elected, the ballots together with straw are burned in a stove with a chimney that reaches to the roof of the chapel.  Because a new pope has not been elected the ballots are burned with chemicals that cause the smoke from the chimney to come out as black.

If there is no one elected pope at the end of three days of balloting, the cardinals have a day of reflection and prayer.  If there are seven more ballots without result, the process may be suspended once again.

The voting continues until a two-thirds majority is reached for a candidate.  If there are more than thirty-three votes without an election, the pope may be chosen by a simple majority.

Upon the election of a new pope, the smoke from the ballots will be white, and bells will ring to announce a successful election.

Shortly afterwards, the senior cardinal deacon appears with full solemnity on the balcony of St Peter’s and utters the famous word, “ Habemus Papam”:

We Have A Pope !

Vatican chimney










Request a Mass

Light A Candle

Browse our online shop

Sign up to our wonderful monthly St Martin Magazine

Follow us on Facebook



Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four + 20 =