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Smoke signals: How is a new pope elected?

Published: February 27, 2013 | 8:23 am
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With Pope Benedict XVI leaving the papal office rapidly, after resigning two weeks ago, the Catholic Church will have to rush to pick his replacement before Easter.
Normally, the College of Cardinals is not allowed to select a new pontiff until 15 to 20 days after the office becomes vacant — usually when the previous pope has died.
Benedict’s resignation is a rare exception. The last man to quit the head of the Catholic Church did so 600 years ago.
The situation calls for some rule bending, and having the current pope involved is proving advantageous.

He has slightly amended the 500-year-old policy on pope selection to get a successor into place more rapidly.
The cardinals may to be able to pull it off before March 15, according to Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
This would give the new pontiff a little over a week to prepare for the next mass, Palm Sunday celebrations, on March 24.
While Benedict won’t be directly involved in his successor’s selection, his influence will undoubtedly be felt. He appointed 67 of the 117 cardinals set to make the decision.
The pope gives his last audience Wednesday morning. His last day on the job is Thursday.
What has to happen first?
There are alternative methods to choosing a new pope, but as a rule, cardinals pick a peer via paper ballot.
When a pope dies, the dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals calls for a meeting of all cardinals eligible to vote — those under age 80.
They have to vote in person. Although some work at the Vatican, most are spread out worldwide running dioceses or archdioceses, and will have to travel to Rome.
Once they get there, they can’t leave until the process is done and aren’t allowed to talk with anyone outside of the conclave.
Though Benedict left the rules greatly untouched, experts on the Church’s constitution will comb through the section on the “Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff” (how to elect a new pope when the office is vacant) and interpret proper protocol for the election.
Benedict’s predecessor, the widely popular John Paul II, made a number of changes to the voting process in 1996 to make it less taxing on the cardinals.
What does balloting look like?
The meeting of cardinals, called the conclave, begins with a special morning mass in the Sistine Chapel, known for its famous ceiling painting by Renaissance artist Michelangelo.
Actual voting starts in the afternoon. Ballots are passed out, and cardinals write in a candidate’s name and fold it up, then one by one, in order of seniority, they approach an altar and ceremoniously place their ballots into a chalice.
Voting is secret, but ballots are counted in the open. A cardinal needs a vote of two-thirds plus one to ascend to the papacy. If there is no winner, the vote is repeated up to three times on the first day.
What does the smoke from the chimney mean?
After each vote, the ballots land in the fireplace. If no one has won, a chemical is added to make the smoke black. This lets people waiting in St. Peter’s Square below know that there is no new pope yet.
If there is a winner, no chemical is added, and the smoke remains white, telling the world that the conclave has agreed on a new pontiff.
What if there is no winner?
Then they vote again and again and again. By the end of the third day, if there is still no new pope, they break for a day for prayer, discussions and exaltation from a senior cardinal. This recovery day was instituted by John Paul II.
Voting can go on for another seven rounds of balloting. Still no pope? Another day’s rest. Then another seven rounds. Really, still no new pope? Another day of rest and an exaltation. Then seven more ballots.
John Paul decided to save the cardinals from themselves, if they reach this point. He reduced the necessary result to elect a new pope to an absolute majority — 50% plus one vote — if they cross this tiring threshold.
When there is finally a winner?
The winner must accept the decision for it to be valid. Once he does, the dean asks him to choose a papal name. The oldest cardinal announces the new pope to the crowd in the square from a balcony. The new pope joins him to bless the crowd and the rest of the world.
Past popes have been crowned during a coronation ceremony, but John Paul II refused it, and Benedict followed suit. Both were inaugurated in a mass in St. Peter’s Cathedral.


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