Behind the scenes: electing a new pope


In February, Pope Benedict XVI did what had not been done for nearly 600 years: resigned from the papacy. Since his humble decision left the Chair of St. Peter empty, the cardinals would elect a new pontiff.

According to, the process of papal election is called the Conclave. During the Conclave, which comes from the Latin phrase “cum clave,” (“with key”), the cardinals eligible to vote are locked into the Sistine Chapel and cut off from contact with the outside world until a decision is reached. The number of cardinals cannot exceed 120, and in order to be eligible, a cardinal must be under the age of 80.

Although for hundreds of years only cardinals have been elected pope, any adult Catholic male who is baptized and unmarried is eligible for the office, as long as no ecclesiastical or divine law says otherwise. If it should ever happen that the person elected is not yet a bishop, he will be ordained after accepting the role.

When the cardinals are voting, they use a secret ballot, which was introduced by Pope Gregory XV in 1621 to ensure that cardinals could vote their conscience. This means that when the cardinals write the name of their choice candidate on the ballot, they disguise their handwriting. When a voting session is over, the ballots are tied into a bundle and burned in a special stove. If the votes have been inconclusive, the smoke is black. But when a pope has been chosen, a certain substance is put in the fire to make the famous white smoke.

After the chosen candidate has given his assent to be pope, he enters the “Room of Tears,” where he puts on the papal vestments for the first time. Next comes the exciting moment when the Cardinal Protodeacon, the senior-most member of the order of deacons, emerges onto the main balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and announces, the new pope. This happened on March 13, 2013 with, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis.” Translated, this means, “I announce to you all great joy. We have as pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio: Francis.”

The new pope is determined by a two-thirds majority, which meant 77 out of 115 in the recent case of the current Pope Francis . EWTN News shared that from March 12 to March 13, it took four inconclusive voting sessions before Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was chosen to be the next pope. Pope Francis, a 76-year-old Jesuit, had received the second most votes in the Conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. He is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope named Francis, and the first pope from South America.

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