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Papal Succession

QUESTION: How does papal succession work?


When the reigning Pope dies, the Roman Catholic Church performs a ritual to elect a successor. The head of the Sacred College of Cardinals verifies that the Pope is dead. There follows nine days of mourning. In approximately two to three weeks the Sacred College of Cardinals which has been handpicked by the Pope gathers from all over the world to elect the new Pope. Pope Paul VI instituted the reform that only cardinals under the age of 80 were eligible to vote. Technically, any adult, baptized Roman Catholic male may be elected to the papacy; however, for the past centuries only cardinals have been elected.

The gathering to elect the Pope is called a conclave, which means, with a key. Following the Mass of the Holy Spirit held in St. Peter's Basilica, the cardinals are locked away in an annex of the Sistine Chapel. The area is searched for bugs and each cardinal is sworn to secrecy. Entrances are sealed. If a cardinal were known to break the oath of secrecy he would be immediately excommunicated. The cardinals are sequestered from any contact with the public.

The Camerlengo, the head of the College of Cardinals, along with his three assistants conducts the secret, written ballot. In order for a candidate to be elected, he must receive two thirds of the vote plus one. In 1996 a change was instituted, however, that allowed a Pope to be elected with an absolute majority vote. This vote, half plus one, was instituted by John Paul II to speed up the process if an unsuccessful vote had gone on for too many days. Each day, there could be as many as four votes if the vote was unsuccessful; two votes were held each morning and two votes were held each evening. Each cardinal would cast his vote with an open hand so that others could see that he held only one piece of paper. After each round of voting the ballots are burned. If the vote has been unsuccessful a chemical substance is added to the fire to create black smoke to let the outside, waiting public know that there are as yet, no results.

When the vote is finally successful, the ballots are burned but with no chemical added to the flames so that the smoke remains white. This signals a successful vote to the outsiders. The dean of the cardinals asks the cardinal who has received the majority of the vote if he will take the office. If he agrees, he is congratulated and ordained the Bishop of Rome. A cry of Habemus papam is shouted by the dean of cardinals. This means, we have a Pope The new Pope will traditionally come forward to the window to bless the waiting crowd and receive their approval.

Learn More about Pople John Paul II!

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