How Do Catholics Choose the Pope?
Pope Francis | Most Popular Pope in Recent History
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The simple answer is, the College of Cardinals in the Catholic Church selects the Pope whenever the position is vacated.
Aside from the Pope, the more than 200 Cardinals across the world (known for their red vestments), are the highest group of leaders in the Catholic Church.
While in theory, any male priest in the Catholic Church can be elected Pope, tradition holds that the voting Cardinals will elect one of their own at the next leader of the Church.
Although the group as a whole (Cardinals) holds the highest level of power beneath the Papacy, there is a hierarchy within the group, too. Cardinal Bishops are considered the ranking tier, followed by Cardinal Priests, with Cardinal Deacons being the lower sector of the group.
When a Pope dies (generally the event creating a succession, with the notable exception of Pope Benedict XVI's abdication in 2013), a "Conclave" of voting Cardinals convenes to select the next leader. Pope Benedict was the first Pope to resign the office in nearly 600 years, since Pope Gregory XII stepped down in 1415.
Short Video | How a Vatican Conclave Works
Vatican Conclave of Cardinals | Who Votes for New Popes
Although there are more than 200 Cardinals in the Catholic Church, a Papal decree in 1970 by Pope Paul VI specifies that only those under the age of 80 may vote in a Conclave.
The electorate of Cardinals (those eligible to vote) follows a process heavily steeped in tradition and ceremony.
All those who will participate in the Conclave convene at the Vatican and are sequestered throughout the entire process.
With the advent of electronic communication, steps that were not needed decades ago are taken in the current era to ensure the process is done in secrecy.
Cell phones, texting, computers and other devices were, of course, unheard of centuries ago. So the Vatican must now create an environment that is electronically secure, in addition to the guards and other measures historically in place during Conclaves of the past.
Pope John Paul II in 2004
How a New Pope is Chosen
Certainly, as the voting Cardinals travel to Rome for a Conclave, we can assume there are communications, discussions and exchanges of thoughts about who should be the next leader.
Since Cardinals serve all throughout the world, each brings a perspective of the needs of those in the Church, cultural heritage, issues facing Church leadership and ideas for future directions of the Catholic faith.
Prior to being sequestered, Cardinals are not monitored in terms of who they might speak or communicate with about these issues and the coming votes. In earlier centuries, sequestration was so strict that Cardinals had food passed to them through openings. Current Conclaves, although secure, are not as harshly structured.
Once sequestered, they are restricted from communicating with those outside of the Conclave, and must concentrate on the task at hand: Electing the next Pope.
This is done by vote.
The current tradition is, after the first day (when only one vote may be taken, if desired) four votes a day are taken (generally two in the morning, and two in the afternoon), continuing daily, for at least three days.
If the three days of voting have not produced a new Pope (generally requiring a two-thirds majority of those voting), the votes may be suspended for up to one day, and the time devoted to prayerful consideration of the task and an opportunity for the senior-most Cardinal Deacon to address the group.
Following a break for prayer, the votes may resume for another seven rounds. If the Church is still without a new elected Pope, another suspension may be held, with a talk by the senior-most Cardinal Priest.
If, after seven more ballots are taken, the vote has not reached the required level of majority, another break can be held, and the senior Cardinal Bishop may address the Conclave.
After seven further ballots, the Conclave would hold a day of prayer, reflection and discussion, and subsequent ballots will include only the two persons receiving the most votes in the previous ballot, and individuals whose names are under consideration may not vote in those ballots.
What About You?
Did you know about the tradition of white smoke signifying the election of a new Pope?
Take This Quiz! What Does the Puff of White Smoke Mean?
With each ballot taken in a Conclave, smoke (from the ballots being burned, chemically colored to be either black or white) is released to the waiting world to indicate whether there is a new Pope.
If a vote does not yield a two-thirds majority, black smoke rises above the Vatican to signify that vote failed.
When a vote results in the appropriate majority, white smoke is released, commonly referred to as the "puff of white smoke," signaling a new Vatican leader.
So common and understood is this phrase that it is synonymous with hearing of a consensus in political and corporate settings.
Since 1939, the world has seen the puff of white smoke over the Vatican only a handful of times. Pope Pius XII held the Papal office for nearly 20 years (from 1939 to 1958), followed by Pope John XXIII, who was in office from 1958 to 1963.
Pope Paul VI succeeded the beloved Pope John XXIII (well-liked because of his humble origins and attitude), serving from 1963 to 1978.
Following his death, Pope John Paul I for only a month, from the end of August to the end of September in 1978. At his death, Pope John Paul II (who chose his name to honor his short-lived predecessor) was elected, and served from 1978 to 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI was elected. Pope Benedict XVI abdicated (or resigned) the office in 2013.
Since a Pope selects his own name for his office, there are many duplications throughout the centuries.
The puff of white smoke from the Vatican is a historic event. As anyone who has spent days watching the news reports can attest, the world sits poised and in anticipation, with cameras focused on the sky above the Vatican.
When the smoke is black, the crowd outside the Conclave will cry out in disappointment. When the white smoke is finally released, loud cheers will erupt across the entire plaza of those waiting, and bells will ring to herald that there's a new pope.
Regardless of the faith of a person, the size, scope and reach of the Catholic Church affects some element of life in almost any country. The puff of smoke signals a new person has been chosen whose decisions and tenure will impact the entire world.