How Is the Pope "Elected?"


There is perhaps no greater "election" in the world than that of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Election is italicized because the Pope is not elected in the traditional sense of the term. Instead, each new Pope is elected through prayer and a final secret ballot consisting of about 120 cardinals in a conclave in Rome. What happens in the conclave is closed-off to the world and still open to speculation and mystery. However, many of the procedures have been revealed over the last two millennia.

In this article, we’ll uncover who chose the first Pope, go over the procedure when a Pope dies, explore what likely occurs in the conclave and secret balloting for the new Pope, see who can become Pope, and show what occurs with the election of the new Pope.

Next, we’ll explore how the first Pope was chosen.

The First Pope & Early Years

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ chose his apostle Peter as the first Pope of Christianity. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter:

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Jesus then strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.

The Bible’s New Testament contains an additional four metaphors for the foundation of the Church (1 Cor. 3:11, Eph. 2:20, 1 Pet. 2:5–6, Rev. 21:14). However, the Bible does not mention how Popes were to be elected after Peter. So, the early Christians began to develop their own procedures for electing new Popes, under a body of canon law – religious law.

During the early years of Christianity, the senior members of the Christian community and general laity – the general members of Christianity – elected the Pope. Later, only the senior clergymen in and around Rome elected the Pope. In 1059, the Roman Catholic Church restricted the job of electing the Pope to the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. (A cardinal is a priest and senior official of the Church, and usually a bishop. The cardinals of the Church are collectively known as the College of Cardinals.)

The modern election of the Pope was set forth during the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, in which a group of bishops, abbots, and many other representatives met to discuss religious topics such as the election of the Pope. The Council of Lyons established the modern election of the Pope and the conclave (which will be discussed later in this article).

Next, we’ll go over what happens when the Pope dies.

What Happens When the Pope Dies?

When the Pope dies, Cardinal Camerlengo (the title of one of the cardinals) must verify his death. This was traditionally done by calling the Pope’s baptismal name 3 times (as opposed to the name he chose as Pope) without hearing a response. Today, this is still done, but his death is verified by medical staff.

Then, Cardinal Camerlengo takes the "ring of the fisherman" worn by the Pope and his papal seal and breaks them. Another ring is made for the newly elected Pope. Then, Cardinal Camerlengo and his staff make preparations for the Papal funeral rites and the novemdieles - the 9 days of morning for the deceased Pope.

During the interregnum, i.e. time during which there is no Pope, Cardinal Camerlengo directs the government of the Catholic Church. He arranges the funeral and burial of the Pope. He also directs the election of the new Pope, assisted by three Cardinals elected by the College of the Cardinals.

About 15 to 20 days after the death of the Pope, the cardinal electors enter the "conclave" to choose the new Holy Roman Pontiff. Up to 120 cardinal electors may be selected out of all the cardinals to enter the "conclave" to elect a new Pope, in which one of them will be elected (but technically any male in the world could be elected Pope, as we will discuss later).

Next, we’ll go over what is believed to occur in the conclave and secret ballot.

The Conclave & Secret Ballot

The conclave is a secret session held in the Sistine Chapel in Rome with up to 120 cardinal electors. The conclave is closed off to the general public and each cardinal elector must take an oath of absolute secrecy about voting and deliberations before they enter the conclave. This is known as sequestration – kind of like how jurors in a jury trial may be sequestered. The penalty for disclosing anything about the conclave is automatic excommunication, i.e. kicked out the Catholic Church.

The cardinals take seats around the wall of the Sistine Chapel and receive ballots with the written words Eligo in summum pontificem – "I elect as supreme Pontiff…" Each cardinal prays and eventually writes a name on the ballot, folds it in half, and places it in a chalice. Cardinal Camerlengo counts the votes with his three assistants.

One Cardinal must receive at least two-thirds + 1 of the votes to become the new Pope. If one cardinal receives the required votes, a special chemical is used to burn the ballots to give off a white smoke that comes out of the Sistine Chapel. This signals to all the onlookers standing outside the Sistine Chapel that a new Pope has been elected. Additionally, the Vatican rings the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica to signal the new Pope so there is no confusion about the color of the smoke. If no cardinal receives the required votes, Cardinal Camerlengo burns the ballots with a different chemical to give off black smoke to signal that a new Pope has not been elected.

The cardinals vote on the afternoon of the first day, then twice in the morning and twice each afternoon for each subsequent day until they elect a new Pope. If they fail to elect a new Pope within the first three votes, then they may devote up to one day of prayer and discussion before resuming to vote. They may do this every 7 unsuccessful votes after that.

During the actual voting process the electoral cardinals must refrain from all contact with the outside world. A few select individuals perform regular sweeps of the Sistine Chapel for any types of listening devices. Each cardinal elector may also choose two or three attendants during the conclave to assist him. The workers and assistants at the Sistine Chapel are forbidden to talk to anyone during the electoral process.

No conclave in the last 200 years has lasted more than 5 days.

Next, we’ll go over who can become Pope.

Who Can Become Pope?

Any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason can be elected Pope (woman cannot become Pope because they cannot be ordained as priests). In practice, one of the cardinals in the conclave is elected as the new Pope. (The last non-cardinal elected Pope was Urban VI in 1379). If a Pope is not a bishop, then he will have to be consecrated as a bishop prior to becoming Pope. Technically, a non-Catholic male could be elected Pope, but he would have to be immediately converted to Catholicism, ordained as a priest, and consecrated as a bishop before becoming Pope. However, this is extremely unlikely.

In the election of Pope Benedict XVI (the current Pope), 115 cardinals were selected as electoral cardinals and entered the conclave. In the fourth round of voting, the conclave elected John Ratzinger to the papacy with 84 votes, according to the account of an unnamed cardinal. John Ratzinger chose the papal name of Pope Benedict XVI.

The new pope also has to be able to speak Italian and must be under the age of 80 years old. Most of the cardinals in the conclave can speak Italian.

Next, we’ll go over what happens when the new Pope is elected.

The New Pope

The new Pope, also known as Pontifex Maximus or the Holy Roman Pontiff represents one the world’s greatest positions of leadership. The cardinals pledge their allegiance to the new Pope and he is dressed in the pontifical vestments, a white soutane, i.e. priest robe, and skull cap. This all occurs in the "Room of Tears," because tradition says it was quite common for the new Pope to break down and cry in jubilant emotion over his election.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals asks the newly elected Pope if he accepts election and what papal name he wishes to be called. Since 533 A.D., popes have selected papal names after Pope John II adopted his papal name because he felt that his original name, Mercurius, was inappropriate, as it was also the name of a Roman god. Pope Benedict XVI’s birth name is Joseph Ratzinger. The pope prior to Pope Benedict XVI was Pope John Paul II, perhaps the most famous pope in the last millennia. Pope John Paul II’s birth name was Karol Wojtyla.

Upon tradition in the election of the new Pope, the Proto-Deacon of the College of Cardinals steps onto Vatican’s main balcony and declares to Rome and the world the following:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam. Eminentissimus et Reverendissimus Dominus, Dominus _____ Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalis Qui sibi accipit nomen ____.

I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope. The most eminent and reverend Lord, the Lord ____ (Cardinal’s name) Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church who takes to himself the name ____ (Pope’s chosen name).

The newly elected Pope then appears on the Balcony and delivers his first address to Rome and the world with his Apostolic Blessing. Finally, the Pope can ask the cardinals to remain in the conclave for one last evening.

A few days after the election, the Pope holds his first Papal Mass at St. Peter’s. During the procession, the following words are said to the Pope: Pater sancte, sic transit Gloria mundi ("Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world.") This is meant to remind the Pope that he remains a mortal who will die and conduct his affairs for the Church.

Finally, we'll conclude with a few main thoughts.


The election of the Pope remains the longest continuous election in the world spanning over two millennia. It also stands as one of the world’s greatest electoral spectacles steeped in faith, tradition, and mystery.

Technically, any male in the world could be called to the position of Pope. While this very unlikely to occur, canon law does allow it. Additionally, in the slim chance that the College of Cardinals ever become extinct, the duty of choosing the pope would fall on the remaining Roman Catholic clergy, and then upon the general laity – just as it was in the early days of Christianity.

Finally, no one can say for sure what occurs in the conclave, but one thing remains certain: The Pope acts as the leader of over 1 billion believers across every national border, language, and time zone.

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