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The world’s more than one billion Catholics wait for weeks after a pope’s death to see white smoke rise out of the Sistine Chapel—the conclusion to a highly secretive, strictly regulated ancient election process that selects the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
When the head of the Catholic Church dies, the “interregnum” period, or the time between a pope’s death and the election of a new leader, begins.
The pope’s death is first verified by the camerlengo—the Vatican’s overseer of property and revenues—who ceremonially calls out the pope’s baptismal name three times, and upon receiving no response, pronounces the pope dead and informs church staff and the public.
The camerlengo locks the papal apartment, a historic practice because looting of the pope’s apartment was once common, and arranges for the breaking of the pope’s ring and seal to symbolize the end of his rule.
The pope’s burial must take place between four and six days after his death, according to the Universi Dominici Gregis constitution that governs the papal transition, and the church observes nine days of mourning.
Between 15 and 20 days after the pope’s death, cardinals under 80 years old arrive at the Vatican to begin the papal conclave, a secretive election process held to determine a successor.
Cardinals lock themselves in the Sistine Chapel, disconnected from news media and telephones to block any outside influence, and undertake multiple rounds of voting until a candidate receives a two-thirds majority.
After votes are conducted, the ballots are burned: For every vote that fails, the cardinals release black smoke from the Sistine Chapel, and white smoke means that a new pope has been elected.
Once a pope is elected, the dean of the cardinals asks him if he accepts his election and is instructed to choose a name.
The senior cardinal deacon introduces the pope on a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City and declares “Habemus Papam” (“We have a pope,” in Latin), and the new pope blesses the crowd.
Early papal elections lacked a formal structure and varied throughout history, with some popes appointed by their predecessors and some appointed by political rulers. Pope Nicholas II laid the foundation for modern papal elections in 1059, decreeing that cardinal bishops will nominate a pope’s successor and cardinal priests will vote. The papal conclave was created by Pope Gregory X in 1274 after his own election took three years, the longest papal election in the Catholic Church’s history. Under Gregory’s modifications to the papal election process, cardinals would not be allowed to leave unless a new pope has been selected. Pope Paul VI ruled in 1970 cardinals over 80 could no longer participate in the papal conclave. The current set of rules governing papal elections was published by Pope John Paul II in 1996, with some modifications made by Benedict XVI, who reversed John Paul’s ruling that a simple majority could be accepted instead of a two-thirds majority if 30 consecutive ballots fail.
A pope typically dies while in office—but the most recent papal transition occurred when Benedict XVI voluntarily stepped down in 2013, the first church leader to do so in nearly 600 years. Then 85 years old, Benedict resigned because of declining health and his old age, officially leaving office on February 28, 2013. Benedict amended a church law allowing the papal conclave to be held sooner than 15 days because a funeral did not have to be held in the meantime. The conclave began on March 12, 2013 and Pope Francis was elected after five ballots. Francis served as pope for nearly 10 years before Benedict died on December 31, 2022. The current and former pope both lived in the Vatican during Francis’s papacy, an unprecedented situation that led to much speculation about their relationship and symbolized the division in the church between more conservative supporters of Benedict and liberal supporters of Francis. Francis presided over Benedict’s funeral in January, though some conservative supporters of Benedict found Francis’s allegedly brief remarks to be disrespectful.
Openly campaigning—or even discussing—a pope’s successor while he is still alive is strictly forbidden for cardinals. Though cardinals do discuss candidates privately before the conclave, public campaigning is frowned upon. Instead, some cardinals with ambitions of becoming pope will covertly campaign, often by traveling to visit colleagues or delivering lectures.
1.378 billion. That’s the number of Roman Catholics there were in the world at the end of 2021, according to statistics released by the Vatican in 2023.
The Papal Transition: An Overview (NPR)
When a Pope Dies (The Washington Post)
Selecting a pope (CNN)