What Happens if the Pope Dies? The Process for Electing a New Pontiff

The election of a new Pope takes place through a secret ballot at the Vatican.

Isabel Cara

hombre de vestimenta blanca con anillo en el dedo

Pope Francis was recently hospitalized due to a respiratory infection, which caused many people to question what would happen if he could no longer continue his job as one of the most important religious leaders.

This event would be sad for believers all over the globe, but also important for non-believers, since this position is of international relevance because it is a sector that influences social and diplomatic aspects. If this tragic scenario were to happen, there’s a very strict and thorough process to elect a new Pope.

How a New Pope is Elected?

The process is carried out in private, almost as a secret, when a Pope resigns or dies. The process, which has been a complete political strategy since the Catholic church was founded, has many steps and rules to elect the best successor of St. Peter.

The Meeting

The first thing that is done is to convene a meeting where all the cardinals of the world are present. This is known as a conclave, which has existed since 1274. The meeting is held in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, in secret and under lock and key (literally). They are in charge of proposing candidates, electing the new pope, and where they will stay during the days of the election process no matter how long it takes.

Requirements to Be Part of the Conclave

Cardinals must meet certain requirements to be part of the conclave (a word that derives from Latin that means that which is locked): They cannot exceed 80 years of age, and they have cut all communication from the outside during the process.

How Long Does the Conclave Last?

There is no specific time for the duration of the conclave. The cardinals can take as many days and hours as necessary to agree on who will be the new pope.

Vatican chimney

Black or White Smoke

The meetings of the cardinals generate great tension among them and in society, especially because they are incommunicado. The announcement or how the selection process is progressing is known thanks to a chimney. Each Cardinal votes, and then the ballots are counted.

The ballots then are burnt, and the smoke will indicate whether the result is positive or negative: if it is black smoke, which gets the color after adding a substance known as fish, it means that there has been no consensus, meaning they haven’t agreed on a new Pope; but if the smoke is white, we will know that they have already made a decision.

“Habemus papam!”

Finally, once the cardinals are elected and announced that they already know who will be the new Pontiff, one of them leans out from a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and pronounces “Habemus papam.” Until Pope Francis, most Popes have been of European descent.

Story written in Spanish by Nayeli Párraga in Cultura Colectiva