Pope Benedict XVI
As Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation at the end of the month as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, many are probably wondering what happens next. Reuters

As Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation at the end of the month as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, many are probably wondering what happens next.

While this is the first time in nearly 600 years that a pope has resigned, the current pope does not designate a successor just because he has the physical ability to do so. Rather, the process will follow traditional protocol, which states 120 elector cardinals will meet to choose a new leader for the church.

Despite the fact that there are usually more than 120 cardinals at any one time, not all are elector cardinals. Under current church law, cardinals must be under 80 years of age, of sound mind, and present in person at the elections to be eligible to vote.


The official appointment of a new pope is the result of a vote that takes place in what is known in the catholic religion as papal conclave. In the situation of a pope’s death, conclave is supposed to take place no earlier than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the passing. Since Pope Benedict XVI has not died, the effective date of his resignation will likely serve as a reference point for the time frame.

Once conclave has began, the cardinals are literally locked into a room until they have elected a new pope. Cardinals are not permitted to have any contact with the outside world (no television, no newspapers, no letters, no phone calls) during the papal elections.

Conclave takes place in the Sistine Chapel, a small room with the famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo, within St. Peter's Basilica.

During conclave, which can take several days, the cardinals sleep in St. Martha's House, an area inside the Vatican (just 350 meters from the Sistine Chapel), which has 130 rooms. Other Vatican employees live in these rooms, but they will vacate them during conclave.

According to canon law, the body of laws and regulations made or adopted by Church leadership for the government of the Christian organization and its members, any Catholic man in good standing can be elected pope. While the pope has, since 1522, acted previously as a cardinal, any bishop, priest, deacon, or Catholic layman could be selected. If a non-bishop were elected as pope, he would have to be ordained a bishop before taking the throne since the pope also takes the title of the Bishop of Rome.


Canon law indicates that the pope is elected by write-in vote on a secret ballot. Each cardinal is given a small rectangular ballot with the Latin words “Eligo in Summum Pontificem,” (I elect as supreme pontiff), printed at the top. He silently indicates his vote by writing a person's name with a pen below those words.

After writing his vote, the cardinal folds the ballot twice, holds it in the air, and carries it to the Sistine Chapel's altar. He declares aloud, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." He places his ballot on a paten (plate) that is resting on a chalice (cup), then uses the plate to drop the ballot into the chalice. He bows before the altar, then returns to his seat.

After all the cardinals have voted, the votes are tallied by three scrutineers, who are chosen from among the electors by lot at each new vote. The scrutineers sit at a table in the front of the Sistine Chapel by the altar. The first scrutineer uses the paten as a cover and shakes the chalice to mix the ballots. The third scrutineer then counts the votes without unfolding them. If the number of the ballots does not match the number of cardinals voting, all the ballots are immediately burned and the voting starts again.

If the right number of ballots has been received, the tallying procedure begins. The steps are as follows:

  1. 1. The first scrutineer takes a ballot, notes the name on it, and passes it to the second scrutineer.
  2. 2. The second scrutineer notes the name and passes it to the third scrutineer.
  1. 3. The third scrutineer reads aloud the name on the ballot, pierces the ballot with a needle through the word Eligo at the top of the ballot, and slides the ballot onto a string of thread.
  2. 4. Each elector notes the name that is read.
  1. 5. Once all ballots are read, the scrutineers write down the official count on a separate sheet of paper.
  2. 6. The third scrutineer ties the ends of the thread on which the ballots are placed in a knot to preserve the vote.
  3. 7. The ballots are placed in a receptacle.

After the vote, all the ballots and notes are burned. If the proper majority has been reached and the elected person has been accepted, white smoke appears above the Vatican to inform the anxiously awaiting world that a pope has been elected. If a pope has not been elected, water or a special chemical is added to the ballots so that black smoke appears. The vote is repeated for as long as it takes until a pope has been elected.

On April 19, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was elected as the successor to Pope John Paul II on the second day of the papal conclave after four ballots.

As soon as a majority vote has been reached, the Cardinal Dean asks the pope-elect (who is invariably already present) two questions: (1) whether he accepts the nomination and (2) by what name he wishes to be known. If he accepts, his pontificate begins at that moment and will continue until his resignation or death.

Once the new pope has accepted the job, and indicated his new name, he immediately dons the papal vestments, a skull cap and white soutane.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals then steps onto the main balcony of the Vatican and declares to the world, Habemus Papam! "We have a Pope!" His Holiness then appears on the balcony and delivers his Apostolic Blessing to the waiting world.

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI made brief remarks before the Blessing, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, after the Great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in the Lord's vineyard. I am comforted by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and act even with insufficient instruments. And above all, I entrust myself to your prayers. With the joy of the risen Lord and confidence in His constant help, we will go forward. The Lord will help us and Mary, His most holy mother, will be alongside us. Thank you.”

Before the cardinals return home, a formal inauguration, or "installation," of the pope is held. This ceremony, colloquially known as the Coronation of the Pope, is held in St. Peter's Basilica. After a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, each cardinal individually express his homage to the new pope.