Electing a pope: The top candidates
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How a pope is elected
A step by step guide of the process to elect a pope

By John L. Allen Jr.

Following the pope's death, the procedures for electing a successor are set by Pope John Paul II's 1996 document Universi Dominici Gregis. Those rules state that there must be no fewer than 15 days, and no more than 20, from the death of the pope until the beginning of the conclave, which is the gathering of cardinals behind closed doors to elect his successor. This period is called the interregnum, or the period between reigns.

The process unfolds as follows:

• Four to six days after the pope dies, a formal period of nine days of mourning, called the novemdiales, begins. A Mass will be celebrated in the pope's memory each day of the novemdiales.

• The body of the pope will lie in state for approximately three days in St. Peter's Basilica, followed by the high funeral Mass in St. Peter's Square. The body will then be entombed inside the basilica.

• As soon as word goes out that the pope is dead, the cardinals begin to assemble in Rome. The 15-day requirement dates from the period of horseback and steamship travel, when it often could take several days to arrive in Rome. They are not sequestered during the interregnum, and thus will stay in various Roman hotels and residences. The Americans will likely stay at the North American College just up the Janiculum Hill from the Vatican.

• Three or four days after the death of the pope, the cardinals will meet in something called a "General Congregation." They will hold this meeting every day until the beginning of the conclave. It will be the only formal event on the cardinals' schedule during the interregnum.

• The General Congregation handles logistical business, such as setting the time and date for the beginning of the conclave and selecting two clerics "known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority" to address the cardinals on the state of the church. These speeches are titled de eligendo pontifice. The first is delivered during one of the meetings of the General Congregation, the other on the first afternoon of the conclave itself. This will be the only overt, semi-public discussion of the succession. There is no political debate or campaign-style speechmaking in the General Congregation.

• During the interregnum, cardinals will meet informally with one another, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in larger groups, to discuss the issues facing the church and which cardinals might be capable of becoming pope. All the real political activity is carried out in this informal, behind-the-scenes way.

• Cardinals will give interviews to the press during this period, and they will be closely watched for hints as to what issues are on their minds and what sort of pope they may be looking for.

• The morning the conclave is set to begin, all the cardinals will take part in a Mass Pro Eligendo Papa - for electing the pope - celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica. This will be the last public event before the election begins, and the homily will be closely watched for clues as to what the cardinals are thinking.

• That afternoon, the cardinals assemble in the Pauline Chapel inside the Apostolic Palace, and after a few prayers and hymns, will process into the Sistine Chapel.

• Once inside, the cardinals will take an elaborate oath of secrecy. Then the master of ceremonies will cry Extra Omnes, meaning, "Everyone out," the signal that the conclave is about to begin.

• By custom, there will be one ballot in the afternoon, then two in the morning and two in the afternoon of the following day until one candidate has obtained a two-thirds majority.

• Barring special circumstances, there will be dramatic wisps of smoke from the conclave twice a day, once in the late morning and once in the early evening, until the pope is elected. Black means no pope has been elected, white that a pope has been chosen.

• If the balloting is inconclusive after three days, there will be a pause of one day. During that time, the cardinals pray and engage in informal discussions. They also hear a brief spiritual exhortation from the senior cardinal in the order of deacons. After this pause, voting is to resume. After seven more ballots, if the result is still inconclusive, there is another pause for prayer and discussion. This time the reflection would be given by the senior cardinal in the order of priests. Another seven ballots is to take place, followed by another pause, this time with remarks from the senior cardinal in the order of bishops. Voting is again resumed for another seven ballots. If there is still no winner, the cardinals may decide to proceed to election by majority, or to take the two names with the largest number of votes in the previous round and decide between them by a majority vote.

• When a candidate is lawfully elected, either with a two-thirds majority or in the other manners described above, the dean of the College of Cardinals will ask: "Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?" From the moment the candidate responds, "I accept," he is the pope. (There is an improbable exception to this rule: If the man elected is not yet a bishop, he must be ordained as a bishop first before he can become the pope.)

• The senior cardinal deacon will make the announcement for which the world has been waiting. He will step out onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, illuminated by massive spotlights, and say: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! ("I have news of great joy.") Habemus papam. ("We have a pope.") He then will reveal the pope's identity, using the formula: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum Cardinalem Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae ("The most eminent and most reverend lord cardinal of the Holy Roman church"), and at this point he inserts the cardinal's name, in Latin. He will finish the sentence by saying, qui sibi nomen imposuit ("has taken upon himself the name"), followed by the name the new pope has chosen to take.

o The new pope will be led down the Hall of Blessings to the central window of the Basilica of St. Peter's. He will step forward, accept the cheers, and deliver his first greeting to the people in St. Peter's Square.

• After the greeting, the new pope is likely to return to the conclave for a meal with the cardinals.

• A few days later (in October 1978 it was six days), the new pope will celebrate a Mass that symbolizes the beginning of his ministry. This used to be called the "incoronation" Mass on the style of a king taking up his crown. Today, however, the liturgy is called an "installation" Mass, and is styled as the beginning of a ministry of service.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@ncronline.org.

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