How is a new Pope chosen?
A new Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope or the Supreme Pontiff and considered by the Roman Catholic Church as the apostolic successor of St. Peter, is elected by a papal conclave, a meeting of the College of Cardinals that is always held at the Sistine Chapel since 1878 when a vacancy occurs due to death or resignation of the reigning Pope.
On 28 February 2013 Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger from Germany) shocked the world when he became the first Pope to resign in 600 years (since 1415) because of declining health due to old age. Pope Benedict served as Pope from 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II. On 13 March 2013 the Papal conclave elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then Bishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Pope taking the pontifical name of Francis as the successor.
Cardinals are bishops, visibly recognizable by their distinctive red vestments, and Vatican officials from all over the world personally chosen by the Pope. Their primary responsibility is to elect the Pope aside from advising the Holy Father in the governance of the Roman Catholic Church.
As of 2017 there are 228 cardinals 117 of whom are eligible to vote. Seventeen new cardinals including the Vatican envoy to Syria has been recently named by our incumbent Pope Francis. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote.
The cardinal electors as they are known process to the Sistine Chapel while singing the “Litany of the Saints” and then take an oath of secrecy before sealing the door of the chapel. They vote by secret ballot. Four rounds of voting are taken every day until a candidate receives two/thirds (2/3) majority vote. The cardinals’ ballots are burned after each round of voting. The outcome of voting is known by the waiting crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square and by the entire world through the colour of the smoke that emanates from the special chimney perched on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Dark or black smoke indicates that the ballots did not result in an election because no one receives the necessary 2/3s majority. White smoke announces that a new Pope is chosen, i.e. the cardinal candidate receives the required 2/3s majority vote. Starting from 2005, the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica keep ringing after a successful balloting to augment the billowing of the white smoke.
Since 1963 a mixture of chemicals are used to burn the ballots in a stove in the Sistine Chapel to produce the black or white smoke. Originally, damp/wet straw was added to the fire in the stove to produce black smoke in the event that a new pope was not chosen; otherwise, the ballots were burned alone creating white smoke.
From the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica the senior cardinal deacon announces “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope) before the new Pope processes out and imparts his blessing on the city of Rome and the whole world.