The following is an original article written by Amanda Milewski, contributing writer to the Pope Blog.
Upon the death of the Pope, a monumental sequence of events unfolds, culminating in a process known as the conclave whereby a new Pope is elected to fill the vacancy of the Holy See (sede vacante) and lead the Roman Catholic Church.
Beneath Michelangelo's awe-inspiring frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the College of Cardinals, led by Cardinal Camerlengo Eduardo Martinez Somalo, begins the arduous process of selecting a new Successor of St. Peter between 15 and 20 days following the Pope's death. This group, also known as the Cardinalate, currently is comprised of 183 cardinals from all over the world. The College is led by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Of the 183, only those who are under the age of 80 are eligible to vote in the papal election. Currently, there are 117 Cardinal Electors who are eligible; although, it is not a given that all 117 will participate, as illness sometimes prevents some cardinals from traveling.
In the conclave, an ancient ritual enduring little change since Pope Gregory X instituted it during the thirteenth century, the cardinals take an oath of secrecy, that if broken renders the offender automatically excommunicated from the Church. There are no televisions, radios, or newspapers allowed inside the conclave. The word "conclave" is derived from the Latin cum clavi, "with a key," and refers to the locking away of the cardinals until they elect a new Pope. The new rules instituted by Pope John Paul II in his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, however, allow for the cardinals to retire at the end of each day. So in effect, the word "conclave" does not apply in the same way now as it had previously.
The Cardinal Electors, all but three of whom were appointed by Pope John Paul II, will vote in a very thorough process of secret balloting. A two-thirds majority is needed to elect a new Pope. The College may vote up to four times a day, but if a new Pope has not been chosen by the third day, then the cardinals cease the voting process for a day of prayer and reflection. Following the day of prayer, the voting process will again commence for another seven votes, then another day of prayer. If after a total of 30 ballots the Cardinal Electors have still not produced a new Pontiff, then the two-thirds majority rule is done away with. Only an absolute majority will be required.
The first indication to the outside world that a new Pope has been elected is the telling smoke signals. After each voting session a smoke signal is given by burning the ballots. If the voting session is inconclusive, straw is added to the burning ballots to produce black smoke. Conversely, white smoke signals that a new Pope has been chosen.
One of the main issues in this upcoming papal election is one of the effects that the doctrine of Second Vatican Council will have. Namely, Vatican II no longer requires cardinals to study Latin. Therefore, the issue of a language barrier is a potential problem that the College may face, since the College of Cardinals, which is also more diverse than ever and speaks more languages than ever, will not share a single common language for the first time in history.
Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 and has since been revered by Catholics as well as other Christian denominations, Jews, and Muslims for being a "Pope for the people." More than any of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II traveled the world, visiting and praying with the people of the area. Many attribute the restoration of the Catholic Church to Pope John Paul II. Much speculation has arisen regarding the Pope's successor, who the next will be to fill the shoes of St. Peter and act as the Jesus Christ's emmissary on earth. The outcome of the conclave is widely anticipated and only when Cardinal Ratzinger comes out onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to address us with the words "Habemus Papam!" will the world know who the next Pope will be.