Last month, on March 13th, the Catholic Church welcomed our 266th Pope as head of the worldwide Catholic Church, Bishop of Rome and Sovereign of the Vatican City State. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, born in Latin America, but Italian by descent, chose the name of Francis as he accepted his election as Supreme Pontiff and assumed his new role, following in the footsteps of St. Peter.
The media swarmed Rome and the Vatican City to cover the election of our new Pope. Interest seemed even greater as it was the first time in over 600 years that a sitting Pope had resigned his office, and was not being replaced due to his death. We all knew to watch for the white smoke to emanate from a chimney in the Sistine Chapel… or wait, was it the black smoke? And which chimney? Fear not dear readers, as the process will be de-mystified for you as we enter into the world of “The Pure and Plain Procedure for Picking a Pope”!
Originally, the Pope was chosen by the senior clergy residing in and near Rome. In 1059, the electorate was restricted to the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. Today, those eligible to be electors are limited to those Cardinals who have not reached the age of 80 on the day before the death or resignation of a Pope.
As the Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, only those who can be ordained a bishop can be elected. Good news for the guys – this means that any baptized male Catholic is eligible. In fact, Pope Leo X, in 1513, was elected when not even a priest! Traditionally, the vote was conducted by acclamation, or a “voice vote”, much like what is used by the audience on “Let’s Make a Deal” to help the contestant choose between “What’s Inside the Box”, or “What’s Behind the Curtain”. Alas, what works on game shows, isn’t as effective in Pope selection, and acclamation was last used in 1621. In fact, Pope John Paul II abolished vote by acclamation and wrote that election would be by a “full vote of ballot of the College of Cardinals”.
The election of the Pope takes place in the Sistine Chapel, in a sequestered meeting called a “Conclave”. The word conclave comes from the words cum clave, meaning “with a key”, which describes the process of literally “locking up” the Cardinals until they have chosen a new Pope. On the morning of the first day of the Conclave, the Cardinal Electors celebrate a Mass for the Election of the Pope. In the afternoon, they invoke the assistance of the Holy Spirit and process into the Sistine Chapel, where they take a solemn oath to observe all of the “laws” governing the election, to never reveal the details of the Conclave, and to not allow any secular influences to sway their vote. Once the last Cardinal Elector has taken their oath, the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies, who is not a member of the Cardinal Electors, gives an order of “Extra omnes”, or “all out”, commanding everyone not officially in the conclave to leave the Chapel, including himself. On the first day of the Conclave, only one ballot is permitted, while on the remaining days of the Conclave, two ballots are permitted in the morning session and two in the afternoon.
Prior to the first ballot, nine Cardinals are chosen, by lottery, to oversee and manage the election procedure. Three Cardinals are chosen to collect the votes of absent Cardinal Electors (those too ill to participate in the Sistine Chapel, but who are on-site at the Vatican); three to count the actual votes; and three to review and ensure the accuracy of the count. After the Cardinals receive their ballots, which are inscribed with the words “I elect as Supreme Pontiff”, they write the name of their choice, fold their ballot in half, approach the altar of the Chapel one by one, and drop their ballot in an urn for counting. As the ballots are counted by the three designated Cardinals, they are pierced with a needle and thread and strung together to ensure accuracy and honesty. When all ballots have been read, the ends of the thread are tied in a knot. Balloting continues until a majority of two-thirds of the Cardinals is achieved. For Pope Francis, he received at least 77 votes out of the 115 Cardinals present on the fifth ballot on the second day of voting.
If a ballot is unsuccessful, meaning a two-thirds majority was not achieved, the ballots are burned in a stove adjacent to the Sistine Chapel with a special chemical compound which produces black smoke, or fumata nera, signaling to the populace that the vote was inconclusive. When the Cardinal Electors have achieved a successful vote, the ballots are burned alone, sending white smoke, or fumata bianca, through the chimney, and announcing to the world that a new Pope has been chosen.
The Dean of the College of Cardinals then asks the Cardinal who was just elected, “Do you freely accept your election as Supreme Pontiff?” If he replies “Accepto”, his reign begins at that instant. The Dean then asks, “By what name shall you be called?”. Once the new Pope announces his papal name, he dons his Papal vestments, receives the “Fisherman’s Ring”, a symbol of his Papacy, and receives each of the Cardinals as they congratulate him and pledge their fidelity. Only after all of this does the most senior Cardinal of the Conclave announce from the balcony over St. Peter’s Square the words which the crowd has been anxiously waiting to hear, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam!”, which means “I announce to you a great joy! We have a Pope!”