When Pope Benedict XVI resigns on Feb. 28, there won’t be a lot of precedent to choose a new pope. In fact, a pope hasn’t resigned in about 600 years, since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. But Vatican officials have already said that they will choose a new pope by Easter (March 31) and here’s how it will very likely happen.
1. Eligible cardinals are summoned to Rome
The members of the College of Cardinals, the Church’s 203 most senior members, will be called to Rome by the Dean of the College of Cardinals. Right now, that’s Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who replaced Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he became pope. However, only members of the college who are less than 80 years of age will be summoned, meaning 118 cardinals could take part in the conclave. This conclave will be able to choose any baptized Catholic male to be the next pope but, writes BBC News, the members of the conclave will almost certainly pick from their own group.
2. Secret conclave
Once all the cardinals arrive they are shut into the Vatican where they will remain, in a secret papal conclave. Contact with the outside world is not allowed unless there is a medical emergency. In history, some conclaves have lasted months or even years.
3. The vote
While in the conclave, the cardinals will vote for a new pope every day in the Sistine Chapel. Historically, a candidate needed at least two-thirds of the votes to become pope. But, but Pope John Paul II changed this rule in 1996. Now, if a conclusive two-thirds vote is not reached after 30 ballots, a majority is enough to elect a pope. The dean, in this case Cardinal Sodano, will ask the newly elected pope if he accepts the position. The new pope also gets to decide which name he wants to be known by.
4. Send up the smoke
Each day, the ballots are burned after voting. Chemicals are added to the ballots to make them either black or white. Black means no decision and white means there is a new pope.
5. Pope is announced
The pope will be fitted with his robes and faithful will gather in St. Peter’s Basilica for the official announcement, which always begins: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus papam…” which means: “I announce to you a great joy… we have a pope.”