March 13, 2013 by bdetienne
On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI stepped down from his position as leader of the Catholic Church, setting in motion one of the most fascinating processes in the world to elect his replacement. The papal conclave, as the process is known, has been around since the 12th century and with only minor alterations is the same as it has been since Pope Gregory X’s election in 1271.
In a nutshell, here’s how a conclave works: upon the death or retirement of the pope, the church’s cardinals stationed around the world flock to the Vatican. Ten days after the previous pope’s reign has ended, a special mass is held and the cardinals are led to the Sistine Chapel and locked inside. With the exception of eating meals and sleeping in their private residence, Santa Marta, and holding a morning mass in the nearby Pauline Chapel, they will remain in the Sistine Chapel for the duration of the conclave.
Four times a day the cardinals vote on a new pontiff. A candidate must receive at least 2/3 of the votes to become the next Bishop of Rome; if this happens, the Sistine Chapel’s chimney will signal to the outside world with white smoke that a new pope has been chosen. If a majority is not reached, black smoke will puff from the chimney and the world is left waiting for the next vote. Extra care is taken to ensure the secrecy of the conclave. Depending on the type of voting the cardinals present inside may know who voted for what candidate but that knowledge stops at the door. All outside communication is banned and monitored to confirm that what happens inside the Sistine Chapel stays inside the Sistine Chapel. The kicker is that this process can be as short as 10 hours (as was the case when Pope Julius was chosen in 1503) or as long as 33 months (the aforementioned election of Gregory X in 1271)!
I am not Catholic but I am a big fan of history and this is truly a fascinating procedure the Catholic Church uses to determine their next leader. It is an important decision as this person will lead the direction of the church and it’s approximately 1 billion members around the globe. There is always the issue of the church looking analog in a modern, digital world but there are also challenges like the string of sex-abuse cases that have emerged over the last decade that they will face going forward. It is no wonder that hundreds of thousands of spectators make the pilgrimage to Vatican City during this time to pray and hope that they glimpse white smoke billowing from the top of the Sistine Chapel. There are a number of cardinals who are considered favorites for the position but there is no clear choice ahead of the pack so it will be interesting to follow this story as it unfolds.
Can you imagine if Congress used a similar process to determine the next President?