After weeks of speculation and plenty of pre-conclave meetings, the conclave to pick the next pope officially starts Tuesday. Take a look at what's involved in the process of choosing a pope, according to CNN, the National Catholic Reporter, Catholic News Service and other sources.
Pre-conclave meetings known as the general congregations started last week and largely dealt with procedural aspects of the conclave, including the conclave's start date. Conclaves normally begin 15 to 30 days after the previous pope dies, but since Pope Benedict XVI resigned instead of dying in office like the vast majority of his predecessors, this conclave started 12 days after his retirement.
All cardinals and a few other assistants may participate in the general congregations, but only cardinals under the age of 80 may vote to pick the pope. There are 115 eligible cardinals at the Vatican who will pick the new pope.
General congregation participants also picked two churchmen "known for their sound doctrine, wisdom and moral authority" to offer meditations on "problems facing the church" and "the need for careful discernment in choosing the new pope." The Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, who gave one meditation before the conclave that selected Benedict XVI, offered the first meditation on March 4. A second meditation offered just before the first round of voting will be given by 87-year-old Cardinal Prosper Grech, a biblical scholar who was made a cardinal last year.
The cardinals participated in a public Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica the morning the conclave starts. In the afternoon, the cardinals will gathered outside the Sistine Chapel, said a few prayers and hymns, then proceeded into the Sistine Chapel.
Conclave comes from two Latin words meaning "with key." Once the conclave starts, the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel and nearby buildings won’t be able to contact the outside world.
In 1996, Pope John Paul II added rules to ensure secrecy with high-tech communications in mind. The Sistine Chapel is carefully checked before the conclave to make sure there aren’t any recording devices hidden inside.
Pope Emeritus Benedict won’t be voting for his successor, nor will he be present for the proceedings. But since he appointed 67 of the 115 cardinals eligible to vote, his presence will likely be felt.
Traditionally, there is one ballot taken on the first afternoon of the conclave and four ballots taken each day after that, two each morning and two each afternoon. A new pope must receive votes from two-thirds of the participating cardinals plus one to be elected.
Cardinals write their selection on a piece of paper, then approach an altar one at a time to put their selection into a chalice.
Three scrutineers tally the votes. The first scrutineer takes a ballot out of the chalice, notes the name on it and gives it to the second scrutineer. The second scrutineer looks at the name and passes it to the third. The third scrutineer reads the name out loud and then pierces the ballot with a needle to slide it onto a long thread with the other counted ballots. The thread is tied into a loop when all the ballots have been tallied.
Ballots are burned after each round so the vote totals won’t be known. Since the smoke from the burning ballots signals to the outside world a round of balloting has been completed, the cardinals developed a color-coded signal to show whether that round of voting resulted in a new pope. They add chemicals to turn the smoke black if no pope was selected, and add nothing to produce white smoke if a pope is elected.
How long will the conclave last? Well, that's up to the Holy Spirit. The longest conclave in history began in 1268 and lasted 33 months. After that, the pope decreed the bishops would get one meal a day if the conclave was longer than three days. This time around, the cardinals certainly won't starve, but it's unlikely the conclave will last longer than a week: the longest conclave since the start of the 20th century lasted five days.
Anyone eligible to be a priest – in other words, an unmarried Catholic man – could be selected pope. In practice, though, the new pope will be one of the cardinals in the conclave.
After a successful ballot, the selected cardinal will be asked whether he accepts the position of pope. If he says yes, he will be asked by what name he will be known.
The new pope's chosen name could tell a lot about him by signaling a previous pope he might hope to emulate. For instance, the selection of the name Pius could suggest a conservative outlook, since Pius XII was known for his conservatism. A John could be a reformer, since John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council.
The new pope immediately puts on papal vestments and is introduced to the world overlooking St. Peter's Square. He then gives his first apostolic blessing.
Traditionally, the new pope was then formally installed at a coronation ceremony where they were crowned with a papal tiara. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI declined to have this ceremony, opting instead for an inauguration Mass.
Wondering who might emerge from the conclave as the new pope? Click here to take a look at some of the top contenders.