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Electing a new pope
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When a pope dies, the Sacred College of Cardinals meets in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City to choose a successor. The meeting must be held within 20 days of the pope's death. The meetings always start in the morning.

(AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti, File)
John Paul II was elected pope on Oct. 16, 1978. This makes him one of the longest-serving popes ever. The average tenure of a pope is 10 years. John Paul II is a Pole, originally Karol Wojtyla, who became the first non-Italian pope since 1522 - 456 years.

The usual process for selecting a new pope is election by ballot, with individual votes by the cardinals under 80 years of age assembled in the Sistine Chapel. The winner of the vote, the next pope, must win a two-thirds majority plus one. If there is no winner after two weeks, the papal conclave can decide, by a majority vote, to invoke a rule that the winner needs only an absolute majority.

The largest block of electors is European. But there are now far more electors from the developing world – Latin America, Africa and Asia – than ever before.

After each vote the ballots are burned. Each time there is no winner, the ballots are mixed with a chemical, and so produce a black smoke from the chimney of the Vatican Palace. This tells the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square that no pope has been elected. When a winner is decided, just the ballots are burned, which produces a white smoke from the chimney.

The pope-elect is asked if he wants to be pope and if he accepts the decision, the oldest cardinal walks to the platform overlooking St. Peter's Square and announces to the crowd Habemus papam, Latin for, "We have a pope." Soon after, the new pope steps out on the balcony, waves to the assembled multitude, then blesses Rome and the world.

An intriguing complexity in the selection of a pope this time is the role of the internet, both in the selection of a new pope and in the functioning of the Roman Catholic Church in the new millennium. There has always been lobbying within the Roman Catholic Church, but with the power and reach of the internet the lobbying suddenly has become massively – some might say frighteningly – decentralized, and globally democratic.

By comparison, consider Martin Luther's brave nailing of his 95 theses on the door of the Catholic church at Wittenberg in 1517, a small, defiant act with repercussions that changed the face of Christianity. Think of what he could have done with the latest computer and an internet connection.

Don't expect a liberal pope, one who might support, say, the ordination of women, but for the first time, because of the Internet, some very liberal agendas are being massively disseminated to key groups within the Roman Catholic Church, including the Sacred College of Cardinals.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and longest-running organization in the history of the world, and the largest single religious denomination, with more than a billion members worldwide. It moves slowly, reluctantly – "like turning around The Queen Mary," it used to be said – but most of the reforms of the last Vatican Council, in the 1960s, were enacted relatively swiftly.

One of the big issues is expanding the decision-making within the mammoth church, moving some key elements from centralized control in Vatican City. There are also the contentious –some would say schismatic – issues of birth control, divorce, celibacy and the ordination of women priests, which John Paul II steadfastly blocked. And there are other complications and complexities. Many at the top of the church do not want another long-term pope, believing this is the time for a short breather before moving on. There are also those who believe this is not the time for another bold move, by which they mean another non-Italian pope.

An international coalition of 140 liberal Roman Catholic groups known as "We Are Church" has been e-mailing petitions around the world, trying to build a consensus for change. The coalition deliberately began its campaign while John Paul II was alive, hoping he could be part of a dialogue among cardinals, archbishops, bishops and the laity.

Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, says it is not unusual for Catholic groups to try to influence change in the church, even to push for what the church authorities may consider stridently liberal changes, but in the past these attempts have been small, local and largely ineffective. "With the advance of technology, we're seeing the ability of groups with similar interests to coalesce and makes their voices heard," Reese has told The New York Times, "Undoubtedly, we'll see the conservative groups start to link up."

The activist group "We Are Church" has prepared a statement titled, "A Pope for the Time to Come: Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor." It was e-mailed around the world for discussion, then edited into a final version. The statement calls for the next pope to be sensitive to "the awakening of women's consciousness," to encourage academic freedom, attempt a dialogue with church dissenters, and be open to welcoming into the priesthood "all those qualified whatever their gender, marital status or sexual orientation."

The statement from "We Are Church" was e-mailed to the cardinals who will gather in the Sistine Chapel for the papal conclave to elect the successor to Pope John Paul II. Only one of the cardinals replied, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels in Belgium.

Cardinal Danneels happens to be one of the possible candidates to succeed John Paul II, but he would never admit as much.


RELATED Pope John Paul II's visits to Canada Catholicism in Canada Canadian Cardinals Archives: The 1987 Papal Visit Archives: The 1984 Papal Visit

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