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How is a New Pope Chosen?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The process of electing a new pope for the Catholic church has undergone many changes through the centuries. Although some traditions have remained consistent, each pope may issue guidelines for the selection of the next pope.

As guided by Pope John Paul II, 120 cardinals must participate in the selection. The basic requirements are that no pope over 80 can be elected, and a two-thirds plus one majority must select the new pope. If this majority cannot be reached, voting must occur for several days with two votes taking place in the morning and in the evening. If four days of voting does not result in the 67% majority, then the candidate with the majority of votes becomes the pope.

There are several processes, which must be completed prior to the election of a new pope. First, when the old pope passes away, his chamberlain, called the camerlengo, pronounces the pope’s death. No autopsy is performed as this is considered desecration. At this point, the camerlengo officially holds the papal office until the next pope is elected.

Nine official days of mourning occur at the death of the old pope. At the conclusion of mourning, the process for voting is organized and convened by the camerlengo. The time period also gives the College of Cardinals time to convene in Rome for the election. However, the election cannot take place until 15 days after the pope’s death, and no more than 20 days afterwards.

During the days of mourning, all cardinals eligible to vote must attend official meetings called General Congregations. They help to order the election, and arrange the funeral for the pope. There are also usually some frontrunners, called preferiti, who are discussed as possible candidates to lead the church.

Although it is technically possible for any Catholic male to be elected a new pope, selection tends to be limited to those priests who are Cardinals. In the past, however, people who were not even priests have been elected, and were instantly given ordination as bishops. This is an unlikely scenario in present day.

Official voting for the pope is done in a process called conclave, from the Latin cum clavis. This means “with key,” and essentially means that the voting is secret. Cardinals are locked into a room, specifically the Sistine Chapel. Voting is done by secret ballot. Should the electoral process take more than a day, the cardinals have lodging at St. Martha’s house. They are “sequestered” like a jury however, and have no contact with the outside world.

Non-voting cardinals, and attendants on the cardinals may be part of conclave as well. However, they are sworn to secrecy both before and after the new pope is elected. Each vote goes through a complex tallying process. All ballots are burned and if the vote has elected a new pope, this burning causes white smoke to float above the Vatican, signifying the world has a new pope. If the vote is unsuccessful, water or a chemical is added to the burning ballots to cause gray smoke to appear. This signifies a vote without an election.

Many Catholics wait in St. Peter’s Square for signs of the smoke. Many feel it is symbolic of rebirth of the church and an end of grief for the old pope when the white smoke appears. After the election, the new pope will accept the office, and dozens of formal ceremonies then occur, some quite private, and others very public.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments
By anon935140 — On Feb 24, 2014

You're right about the use of the word 'preferiti', anon29254. No one had ever heard of the term until the publication of 'Angels and Demons'. It's another example of Dan Brown's inability to do research and fit his narrative to reality and his contrasting ability to imagine all kinds of inane crap to fit his narrative.

The correct term is 'papabili,' which is the plural of 'papabile,' which refers to an individual who is considered to be a likely candidate for election as pope. Also, just because someone is on the list of the papabili does not mean they will be elected and not being on the list does not disqualify them.

The list of papabili is external, and is generated by those who watch the Vatican and report on the Vatican in the press. It is not generated by those who actually make the decisions, though they are usually aware of the favorites being spoken of in the press. For example, Pope John Paul II was not considered to be papabile because he not only was not Italian, but also because he was from a Communist country that was aligned with the Eastern bloc.

By anon117447 — On Oct 10, 2010

i will say though, that if there are nine days of mourning whereby the college convenes and has four days to vote, it presents some discrepancy insofar as the election cannot take place for at least 15 days after the pope's death and no more than 20 days. it defers both of the aforementioned numbers.

By anon117446 — On Oct 10, 2010

Palapable means with probability. common use of the word probably varies according to exactly how one ear hears it: papibile. palatable, etc. and these are useful variations for explanatory purposes. The preferitti, according to this article and the movie, are a representation of 120 cardinals from the college of cardinals. I've heard it suggested they are also an embodiment of the preferred generations of a biblical proportion.

By anon29254 — On Mar 30, 2009

Can anyone document this use of "preferiti"? The usual term for a likely candidate for the papacy is "papabile," which means more or less "pope material." Outside of Dan Brown's 'Angels and Demons'' which is riddled with errors of all kinds, I have not encountered this use of "preferiti."

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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