By: Danilo Acquisto

I am going to try and keep this one nice and short and easy to understand. It’s a brilliant process and I learnt a lot about my faith in the writing of this. It’s the perfect article to share with your friends and youth groups.

I hope to unpack things you may have seen or heard like the black and white smoke, conclave, cardinals, popes and the like. All of which I had personally heard of, but never understood fully how the whole process worked and fitted together.

Ok, so let’s first begin by saying that the Pope is chosen FOR LIFE. So that means whoever is chosen will remain Pope until they die or resign (the latter is what we witnessed in Pope Benedict XVI – the Pope before Francis – and was the first Pope to do this since Pope Gregory XII in 1415!)

The word Pope comes from the Latin Papa meaning father. Therefore, he is considered the earthly father of the Catholic Church. And just an FYI here, the first Pope or father of the faith was St. Peter: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church,” (Matt 16:18). Before St. Peter died he needed a successor, and so the journey went on to keep the faith alive. We can trace Pope Francis all the way back to St. Peter. Pretty cool right?

 *If you’d like to see a list of all the Popes since Peter, click here 

Technically, the Pope’s official title is the Bishop of Rome, like any other bishop, but who is specially selected to be the Father of the Faith seeing as Rome is where the Vatican lies; he is the first among equals – like the president of a cabinet. So who are his cabinet ministers? The cardinals.


What are Cardinals?

These guys wear bright red and together are called the College of Cardinals. They have many duties but their primary function is to elect and support the Pope. They are usually an ordained Bishop of the Catholic Church but are specially selected by the Pope to serve on the College. They make themselves available either individually or as a collective when the Pope calls on them and they usually run a diocese or archdiocese. They are like the parliament of the Church, and different cardinals (like different ministers) have different portfolios – liturgy, doctrine, ecumenism etc.


Who is in the running for the position of Pope?

This is rather interesting because the tradition of selecting a Pope from within the College of Cardinals dates back to the 14th century. But in theory, any baptised male is eligible to become the bishop of Rome / Pope. The only difference here is that this man would need to be ordained a priest and then Bishop before he can take on his duties and accept his new role. So some 120 Cardinals usually are in the running with a two thirds majority (2/3) required to have the decision be complete and this can take a while…


So What Happens Next?

15-20 days after a Pope has passed away or resigned, all the Cardinals that are under the age of 80 gather in Vatican City to get ready to elect a new Pope. On the morning of the first day on which they are to start voting, they celebrate a Mass together for the intentions of the election. Then they enter what’s known as the Papal Conclave (conclave deriving from the Latin meaning ‘with a key’, historically because the Cardinals are locked in the room until a decision has been made). Since 1846 the conclave has taken place in the Sistine Chapel and if the process takes ‘an extended period of time’ the Cardinals are given a few breaks here and there (although they do stay in the room while voting is taking place). So it’s not like that time in high school where your teacher wouldn’t allow you to make a wee! The only external, non-Cardinal people allowed in the room are those chosen by the Cardinals to perform a meditation on the seriousness of what is happening, but then leave when voting begins.


So What’s All This Black and White Smoke Business All About?

On the first day of the Conclave, a single vote is taken (each Cardinal is entitled to one vote). These get collected and are read aloud and tallied by three officials. If no two thirds (2/3) majority is reached, as needed for any one candidate, those ballets are burned and black smoke will rise from the chapel.

They keep up this process for several days (up to 3 days of voting). If no one candidate gets a 2/3 majority after those days, a new process is employed where the Cardinals take a day of prayer, reflection and dialogue. Thereafter, there are various stages which can take place but most commonly, the TWO Cardinals who received the most votes in the previous ballets are allowed to be voted on. They vote again, and finally, once a two thirds majority is reached, the ballots are again burned and white smoke will emanate form the chapel and the bells rung signifying that a new Pope has been selected. Yay for us! “Habemus Papam” – “We have a Pope”

The Pope then chooses a new name to start his new journey in the faith. He goes into a small room to change from his red garb to white and dons his new white head piece called a zucchetto. The new Pope then greets the people and gives his first papal blessing.

A lot goes on behind the scenes. If you wish to know all the exact details of the voting procedure and what happens if deadlock is reached and how the special voting is arranged (along with who is allowed in the conclave and at what times), check out this piece:

Here is also a GREAT short video on the process, if you are not too keen on reading:

About the Author

Danilo Acquisto11430097_1640475269500809_6428364713345833448_n

I am a 24-year-old  busy-body to put it simply. I work on national TV as a television presenter and have 2 radio shows and I love exploring various forms of ministry. Food is definitely my weak point. I live in beautiful Cape Town and have a BA in Law and Sociology. I have a passion for people and digital media (a bit of a contrast, I know). I am ADD and I LOVE it. Look there goes a bunny. Oh and being Catholic was the best gift my parents could have given me. I don’t know how I would have made it through the world (never mind the world of media) without a strong Church Community.