How A New Pope Is Chosen

A look at the process by which a new Pope is chosen.

When Pope John Paul II in the beginning of April of 2005, both the Catholic community and the world were suddenly forced to deal with the loss of the man who was the leader of the Catholic faith for over 26 years. Suddenly, the entire world was in mourning... after all, with this death of a single man an era in both Catholocism and the world as a whole had ended. However, within hours of his death the question of who was to be the next Pope was already being asked the world over.

A variety of candidates were listed, with some more common than others... cardinals from Brazil, Europe, and Nigeria were all mentioned as possibilities for the role of the next Pope. The only thing that most people agreed on was that the likelyhood of an American Pope was quite low.

Of course, by church law the death of a Pope is must be followed by a 9-day mourning period during which no decisions about the next Pope can be made. In fact, no decisions about the next Pope will be made until a group of cardinals known as the Sacred College meet to choose the next Pope at a meeting known as conclave... and they cannot go into conclave until 15 to 18 days after the death of the previous Pope. In the case of the death of John Paul II, the conclave began on April 18, 2005.

Once in conclave, the Sacred College is cut off from the outside world. It is there that they will debate the subject of the next Pope, with smoke being released twice daily from the Sistine Chapel so that the world might know whether or not a new Pope has been chosen. A signal of white smoke shows that they have decided upon a member of the College to take the role of the Pope for the remainder of his life; gray smoke shows that they are still debating the issue.

The chosen member of the College is asked if he accepts the duty of the office, and once accepted is immediately given the homage and support of the other cardinals. The chosen member is then the Pope from that moment on.

Once he accepts the role of Pope, he is also asked by which name he wishes to be called, and can retain his own name or, as is common, choose another name much in the same manner that Jesus changed the name of Peter. The change of name wasn't common until the 11th century, but by now is more or less expected from the new Pope.

Once the new Pope has accepted his office and declared the name by which he wishes to be called, he then puts on the white robes of his office (which are custom made before the meeting of the Sacred College in conclave, and created in three different sizes so that regardless of the size of the man chosen to be the Pope he will be able to wear them) and appears to the world for the first time on the balcony of St. Peter's cathedral in Rome. This appearance announces the identity of the new Pope to the world, and as his first act as Pope he blesses the assembled multitude as well as the world in general.

Of course, there is a formal coronation of the Pope, which usually takes place a few weeks after the his first appearance at St. Peter's. He is then Pope for life, though if he so chooses he could resign at some point before his death. However, the resignation of the Pope is discouraged... in fact, the last Pope to resign was Gregory XII, who was Pope from 1406 to 1415. Should a Pope decide to resign, however, all that he needs to do is make it publically known... as the Supreme Pontiff, no one else needs to accept or approve his resignation. Failing his resignation, a Pope remains in his office until his death, even if he becomes incapacitated at some point beforehand.

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