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How Do Catholics Choose the Pope?

Updated on May 11, 2016
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy writes about American life, holidays, politics and other topics. She has written hundreds of articles for online & print publications.

Pope Francis | Most Popular Pope in Recent History

Pope Francis is one of the most popular popes in history. Compassionate and caring head of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis is one of the most popular popes in history. Compassionate and caring head of the Catholic Church. | Source

Who are the Pontiff Pickers? Read On!

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

Pope John Paul II served from 1978 to 2005.  This photo was taken when he was honored with the Medal of Freedom in 2004.
Pope John Paul II served from 1978 to 2005. This photo was taken when he was honored with the Medal of Freedom in 2004. | Source

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?

See results

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.

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    It would be interesting for the vote to go to the populace in the Church, but it appears it's the College of Cardinals (the highest group). Thanks for reading and commenting, PeachPurple!

  • peachpurple profile image

    peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

    good question, i wondering that too. I think it is the priest and the people to vote

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for your comment, Mio Cid - I need to research that idea; I thought this pope is the first one to use the name Francis? I'll check it out!

    By the way - a friend of mine served a mission in Uruguay - she loves your country, and after seeing her photos and hearing her experiences, I hope to visit there one day!

  • mio cid profile image

    mio cid 2 years ago from Uruguay

    it would be interesting if you could write a follow up hub on the pope who was finally chosen Francis the first.

  • stuff4kids profile image

    Amanda Littlejohn 2 years ago

    Well, I'm not at all religious, so most of that was news to me!

    Fascinating. I didn't know that the Church operated this way to choose its leader.

    It's more than a shame, however, that no women at all are represented in the selection process - I assume that you can't have female Cardinals? Giving the millions of catholic women a voice would be a positive step, I think.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Many thanks, Brett! I think it was mentioned in that book, too. I remember several years ago being surprised that some generations did not know about the white smoke. When you go decades between these events, it's amazing to see it again and for new eyes to witness the crowds waiting and, finally, the smoke. Once you see it, you never forget it.

  • Brett.Tesol profile image

    Brett Caulton 4 years ago from Thailand

    I was curious to read this, as I think this process was portrayed recently in the Davinchi code. An interesting article, old ceremony combined with modern counter measures lol.

    Shared, pinned, tweeted, up and interesting.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    What a kind compliment, Suzette - thank you, so much!

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Marcy: No I don't think Catholics mind at all that a non-Catholic would write this. You have an objectivity Catholics wouldn't have. I think your article is excellent and covers all the bases.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks! ;)

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 4 years ago from USA

    Hi Marcy,

    I'm happy you like the history and traditions of the Catholic Church, and I did find new information. You did a great job with the hub.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Many thanks, Ologsinquito! I am so impressed with the beautiful history and intricacies of the Catholic Church; I'm pleased and honored that a lifelong member found some new information here!

  • ologsinquito profile image

    ologsinquito 4 years ago from USA

    Hi Marcy,

    Great hub and timely too. I am a lifelong Catholic and I had no idea there is also a hierarchy among Cardinals as well, so I just learned something new.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Suzette - I hope those in the church aren't offended by a non-member helping to explain this intricate process. I've found it compelling and fascinating for many years. I agree, there are good places for tradition, and also good times for moving on to new traditions.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Excellent article, Marcy especially by a non-Catholic. I was surprised by the poll - more do not know how a pope in chosen than do. Interesting. I have always watched and paid attention to the election of a new pope. I am Catholic and I enjoy watching the procedure. However, the popes and Catholic church are too steeped in tradition and the old ways -- it needs to open up, loosen up and become more transparent.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Thelma - I'm glad this was interesting to you! Although I am not Catholic, I have watched with interest each time a new pope is called. It was a thrill this time to be watching it live on CNN and see that first puff of white smoke - everyone gasped - "It's white? It looks white! It is!" The crowd went wild, and the bells began to peel. An amazing experience.

  • Thelma Alberts profile image

    Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

    Great hub Marcy. I did not know exactly how a Pope is being choosen even though I´m catholic. Now I know. Thanks for this very informative hub. Voted up and shared;-)

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, DIYmommy! Thanks for reading and for your kind comments - it is a complicated process, and one that's steeped in history and tradition. I'm so glad you learned a few things here. It was amazing to watch the white smoke in real time for this election - very exciting!

  • DIYmommy profile image

    Julie 4 years ago

    Great hub, and very timely indeed! Like other commenters, I wish I would have come across this before the current election. I don't know that the media did the best job at explaining how it all works. Thanks for the great hub!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    LOL! Yes - there's quite a bit of detail to the Papal Election process, Alocsin! You'll probably see more in the future (you are not that old) - so file it away!

  • alocsin profile image

    alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

    I wish I'd caught this before the current election. It would have helped to summarize the process for me. Voting this Up and Useful.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Yes, wouldn't it be amazing to see the inner workings of the process? I'll be fascinated to see the next few days unfold. I appreciate your comments here, Bizna!

  • bizna profile image

    JUDITH OKECH 4 years ago from NAIROBI - KENYA

    The vetting must be underway, this is quite interesting.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Yes - it's hard to believe there's already a turnover. Several recent Popes held the position for many years, so this doesn't happen too often. Thanks for your comments here!

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Sounds interesting, and soon we will know who is elected.

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