Electing a New Pope

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This resource outlines the process of electing a new pope.

Choosing a new pope is somewhat of a mystery to people. In the early Church, a pope was elected not only by the bishops but also by the clergy and the laity. In later years, only the bishops took part in the election. In some cases, political leaders or even bishops attempted to influence the election, which often led to conflicts within the Church and the naming of "antipopes," those in opposition to the elected Pope. The foundation for the current process of electing a pope was laid in 1059 at the Lateran Council, although it has gone through much development since then. In fact, Pope John Paul II made amendments to the process as recently as 1996.

The following is an overview of how a pope is elected today:

What Happens When a Pope Dies?

  • The cardinal camerlengo makes all the arrangements including verifying the Pope's death, breaking the papal seal and Fisherman's ring, sealing the Pope's apartments, notifying officials, and making funeral preparations. He is also responsible, along with three other cardinals chosen from the cardinal electors, for the daily governance of the Church until a new pope is elected. (Matters of greater significance are dealt with by the entire assembly of cardinal electors.)
  • The cardinals travel to Rome to observe the funeral rites of the Pope and prepare for the election.
  • Fifteen to twenty days after the Pope's death, after his funeral and the preparatory meetings have been completed, the cardinals enter the conclave in the Sistine Chapel. They take a solemn oath to follow the procedures and to keep absolute secrecy about the election. The cardinals may not have any contact--written, verbal, or electronic--with anyone outside the election process. (The staff and other support personnel also must take this oath, even though they are not voting.) The penalty for violating the secrecy of the election is excommunication from the Church.
Who Can Vote?
  • Only cardinals can elect a pope. The number of cardinals cannot exceed 120. Cardinals who are over the age of eighty may participate in the conclave's preparatory meetings, but are not allowed to cast a vote.
  • Cardinals who cannot attend the conclave due to illness or other reasons can still vote. Special arrangements are made for those cardinals.
How Does the Election Take Place?
  • After the cardinals have taken their oath, paper ballots with the words Eligo in Summum Pontifacem ("I elect as Supreme Pontiff") are distributed. The cardinals write the name of the candidate they are voting for and fold the ballot twice.
  • One by one, each cardinal carries his ballot to the altar, where there is a chalice covered by a paten. He holds his ballot up so everyone can see that he has voted. As he places his ballot on the paten and slides it into the chalice, he says, "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."
  • After all of the ballots have been collected, the cardinal camerlengo and three assistants, called scrutineers, count them.
How Are the Votes Counted?
  • The first scrutineer silently reads the ballot, notes the name of the person chosen, and passes it to the second scrutineer. He in turn does the same and passes it to the third scrutineer. The third scrutineer reads the name aloud for all to hear, writes the name on a separate sheet of paper prepared for that purpose, and then runs a needle and thread through the ballot. After all the ballots have been joined together in this way, they are then placed in another receptacle or on one side of the table.
  • When all the votes have been read, the three scrutineers tally them. If no one receives a two-thirds majority, a pope has not been elected, and a new vote must be taken. If someone does receive a two-thirds majority, then there is a new pope.
  • After the votes have been tallied, any notes the cardinals have made are collected and placed with the ballots, which are burned by the scrutineers. If a new pope has been elected, the papers are burned, giving off white smoke. If no one has been elected, the papers are burned with an additive that gives off black smoke. This lets the crowds waiting and watching outside know the progress of the election.
What Happens When a New Pope Is Elected?
  • The dean of the college of cardinals, or the most senior cardinal, asks the elected cardinal if he accepts his election and what name he would like to be called as Pope. If the elected cardinal assents, he immediately becomes the bishop of Rome, or Pope.
  • All the cardinals pledge their obedience to the new Pope.
  • The dean of the college of cardinals announces from the balcony of the Vatican that a new pope has been elected and proclaims his name. The new Pope then steps onto the balcony and gives the Apostolic Blessing.


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