The Path to a New Pontiff

On the outside, the election of a new Pope is a carefully choreographed ritual steeped in Catholic tradition. On the inside, it's often about politics and personalities.

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1 "The Pope is dead," the ring is broken

According to legend, a Cardinal attending a dying Pope would strike the Pontiff three times on the forehead with a small silver hammer, looking for a response. There was to be no hammer when John Paul II died, just a one-word question repeated three times by a Cardinal: “Karol?” The Pope’s failure to respond to his baptismal name then allowed that Cardinal, known as the camerlengo, to announce, “The Pope is dead.” The camerlengo is charged with managing the selection of a new Pope. He cannot make new rules and must strictly follow canon law and the written instructions of John Paul II. Among his duties: smashing JohnPaul II’s ring of the Fisherman, which symbolized his authority, and sealing the papal residence. Later the world’s Cardinals will be summoned to the Vatican.

2 Novemdiales: Days of mourning

In the early centuries of the church, papal selections were haphazard and sometimes violent affairs. The College of Cardinals, the top advisers to the Pope, have been the sole electors of new Pontiffs since 1431, using a process that has become highly regimented. Their first job is to plan the Pope’s funeral and the upcoming conclave, or election of a new Pope. Before the official nine-day mourning period, called the novemdiales, John Paul II’s body will lie in state in St. Peter’s Basilica. Meanwhile, the Cardinals will organize the formal funeral Mass, which could be held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope is likely to be buried in a crypt beneath the basilica, near 147 of his predecessors. John Paul II left written instructions that the conclave to elect a new Pope must begin 15 to 20 days after his death. The politics begin.

3 Locked away until “Habemus Papam”

In March 499, an assembly of bishops banned any discussion of succession while a Pope was still alive. That tradition largely continues today, but the Cardinals are widely known to discuss potentialcandidates and exchange views before they are locked in the Sistine Chapel for the election. Once inside, the Cardinals are sworn to secrecy, and the paper balloting begins. Only Cardinals younger than 80 may vote, and the winner must get two-thirds of the votes. If no winner emerges after 12 to 13 days, the Cardinals may elect a Pope by simple majority. An announcement will then be made from the central window of St. Peter’s Basilica: “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope).

Forces in Play


The Roman Curia provides 17% of conclave participants. Several Cardinals in overseas postings have also recently served at the Vatican and may pool votes for a megamanager Pope to halt an increasing sense of administrative drift.


Until John Paul II’s election, every Pope since 1523 had been Italian. And although its bloc has shrunk over time, Italy still has the largest national conclave contingent, with 20. An Italian candidate may also win the support of American and European Cardinals who share concerns about Islam and mounting secularism.


Central and South America have been one of the church’s main growth centers for 50 years, with nearly 500 million believers and an 18% conclave bloc to show for it. A Latin victory could emerge if Asian and African Cardinals united behind a candidate who understands the developing world


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