How the pope is chosen

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The pope
The College of Cardinals in the Catholic church selects a new pope in a meeting called the Papal Conclave
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Learn how a new pope is chosen

When Benedict XVI was announced as the new pope in 2005, it brought up the question: How is the pope chosen? The complicated process of how the pope is chosen was reported on briefly but without much detail. For those unfamiliar with it, the process of is complicated and fascinating.

Death of the Pope

When the reigning pope dies, his death is confirmed by the Cardinal Camerlengo, a member of the College of Cardinals, the body of all Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. He confirms the pope's death by calling out his name three times in the presence of three witnesses.

He also takes possession of the pope's Ring of the Fisherman and his papal seal. These are both destroyed to symbolize the end of the pope's era. The deceased pope's burial takes place four to six days after his death and is followed by a nine-day period of mourning.

The Papal Conclave

The College of Cardinals gathers in a meeting called the Papal Conclave and elects the new pope from among its own members. Technically any unmarried Catholic male is eligible for election, but the pope has been chosen from the College of Cardinals since 1378.

The Conclave begins with the cardinals listening to two sermons that remind them of their duty. They also listen to a description of the current state of the Roman Catholic Church and the characteristics that a pope would need in order to rule. After a communion service, they proceed to the Sistine Chapel and take an oath of secrecy. They also swear to ignore all outside influences when deciding on their vote.

After the oath, everyone but the cardinals and a limited number of servants and attendants are asked to leave the chapel. The cardinals listen to yet another speech, then pray and have a discussion to make sure there is no confusion as to the voting process. Everyone who remains in the Sistine Chapel is forbidden any means of communication with the outside world. During the Conclave in 2005 the Sistine Chapel was swept for electronic bugging devices.

The Voting Process

The election of the new pope begins with ballots distributed to the cardinals. The ballots read, "I elect as Supreme Pontiff" in latin, with a place for the cardinal to write in his choice.

The cardinal electors write down their choice and bring the ballots to the cardinals who are tallying the vote. Before handing in his ballot, each cardinal takes another oath. This oath is swears under God that he has voted for the person he believes should be elected.

Next, the names on the ballots are read aloud and written down. If there is a two-thirds majority of votes for one cardinal, then he is elected the new pope. If not, another vote is held until the new pope is elected.

After each vote the ballots are burned. Black smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel indicates that a new pope has not yet been chosen; white smoke and the ringing of bells signal that there is a new pope.

When there is no selection, up to four votes can be held a day. If a certain number of votes are taken without a decision, then a day is set aside for prayer and reflection. This process continues until a two-thirds majority is reached for one candidate.

A New Pope is Chosen

When a cardinal has been elected, he is asked if he accepts the papacy. He has the right to say no, but usually he would have already made known his wish not to be chosen.

If the new pope is already a bishop, he immediately becomes pope. If he is not yet a bishop, he must be ordained as a bishop before he can take office. The new pope chooses his papal name, and a document is written recording the name of the new pope.

The senior cardinal deacon appears on the main balcony of the chapel and announces the new pope and his newly chosen name. This is all done in latin. The new pope then appears and gives his first apostolic blessing to the crowd assembled.

This is a simplified explanation of how the pope is chosen. Since the pope is considered the father of the Roman Catholic Church, it seems fitting that the process of election is full of ritual and importance.

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