Regardless of your religious beliefs, the selection of a new Pope is a fascinating process, full of mystery, history, tradition, and ceremony, making it a great discussion topic for the family dinner table.
The selection of the new Pope takes place during the Papal Conclave, the assembly of Cardinals in a special area designated for the primary purpose of selecting a new Pope. Merriam-Webster defines Conclave as, “a private meeting or secret assembly; especially : a meeting of Roman Catholic cardinals secluded continuously while choosing a pope.” The word “Conclave” is Latin and means “a place that may be securely closed.”
The Pope is elected by the Cardinals. The Cardinals are senior officials, usually Bishops, in the Catholic Church. This group of Cardinals is known as the College of Cardinals. Anyone with the title of Cardinal who is under the age of 80 is included in this group. As of today, the youngest cardinal is Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal (born 1959), the Major Archbishop of Trivandrum of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India. The oldest living cardinal is Ersilio Tonini (born 1914), the Archbishop Emeritus of Ravenna-Cervia in Italy. Currently, there are 188 eligible Cardinals.
Since 1378, the Conclave has elected a new Pope from among themselves although they are not required to do so. According to Catholic tradition, any unmarried, baptized, adult male Catholic can be elected.
During the Conclave, the Cardinals are sequestered in a closed area of the Vatican, where they meet, pray, and live until a new Pope is elected. The door to the outside world is locked at the beginning of the Conclave and it is not opened until the election is announced. Communication with the outside world is forbidden under threat of ex-communication. Food, water, and other necessities are passed into the rooms, which are guarded by the Pontifical Swiss Guard,
On the morning of the eleventh day, the Cardinals attend Mass and listen to a lecture about their duty to elect the most worthy person to be the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. After Mass, they gather in the Sistine Chapel to cast their votes. If, after the first ballot, no candidate receives the needed two-thirds vote, a second election is held. Elections continue until a Pope is elected. There are two votes per day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Each voting round takes two to three hours. If there is no conclusive vote after 30 ballots, a Pope will be elected based on the majority vote.
After each election, the ballots are burned in a stove whose chimney extends through one of the Sistine Chapel windows. When the required two-thirds is not obtained, the ballots are burned with straw to form a thick dark smoke as a visible sign to those waiting outside to indicate that the balloting did not result in an election. When the required two-thirds vote is obtained, the ballots are burned and the white smoke indicates that a new Pope has been elected. The smoke signals have been used since at least 1878, although there are rumors of an additive in order to make the smoke white. The bells of St. Peter’s Basilica are also rung to announce the new Pope.
The new Pope is asked how what name he wants to be known by and then he is introduced to the people waiting in St. Peter’s Square and to the world at large.