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This is how the Pope is elected

By George Iype in Kochi
April 02, 2005 18:51 IST
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With Pope John Paul II's health deteriorating, many have been asking what will happen in the Vatican when the Pope dies. And how will the new Pope be selected.

The Indian Catholic, the news web site of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, has published a ready reckoner as to what happens.

When the Pope dies, the Camerlengo, or the cardinal administrator of the property and revenues of the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope, verifies the death.

Standing over the deceased, he calls the pontiff by his baptismal name three times. Upon receiving no response, he announces the death and arranges for the Fisherman's ring -- inscribed with the name of the reigning Pope -- and the papal seal to be broken.

Another ring will be made for the newly elected pope.

The Camerlengo then prepares for the Pope's burial and the traditional nine days of mourning. Assisted by three officials elected from the college, he directs the election of the pontiff's successor.

Fifteen to 20 days after the death of the Pope, the Sacred College of Cardinals meets to elect his successor. The cardinals come from every corner of the globe. There are currently 116 voting cardinals.

After a Mass of the Holy Spirit in St Peter's Basilica, the cardinals enter a guarded annexe of the Sistine Chapel for the conclave – the process of electing a new Pope.

Each cardinal swears an oath to protect the secrecy of the election. Breaking the oath carries a penalty of immediate excommunication.

The cardinals are sequestered, literally locked within the walls of the annexe, which is screened for bugging devices.

The next morning, the cardinals attend Mass in the Sistine Chapel, and the electoral session begins.

According to the reforms introduced by Pope Paul VI, only cardinals under the age of 80 may vote. Though in theory any adult male Roman Catholic is a potential candidate for papacy, for centuries only cardinals have been elected Pope.

The election is conducted through secret, written ballots, which are counted by the Camerlengo and his three assistants.

In the past, a Pope needed one more than two-thirds of the votes to be elected.

In 1996, however, Pope John Paul II changed this rule allowing cardinals to select a Pope with absolute majority (half plus one).

Two ballots are taken each morning and two each afternoon until a successful vote is completed. After each voting session, ballots are burned.

If the vote is inconclusive, a chemical substance is added to the paper to produce black smoke. Billowing from the roof of the Vatican Palace, the smoke is a message to the crowds watching in St Peter's Square that the church is still without a Pope.

When the college eventually reaches a decision, each cardinal lowers a purple canopy over his chair, leaving the elected Pope's canopy folded. The final ballots are burned and their white smoke signals a successful election.

The dean of the cardinals asks if the chosen member accepts the papacy.
Upon accepting, the new pontiff is made the bishop of Rome and is honoured by each of the cardinals.

The dean then steps out onto the balcony of the Vatican, shouting Habemus papam! ("We have a Pope!").

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George Iype in Kochi