Potomac News Online | Rules and history of Papal succession

When the Pope dies, the Cardinal Camerlengo (currently Eduardo Cardinal Martinez Somalo) must verify the death, traditionally by calling the Pope three times by his name without response. He must then authorize a death certificate and make the event public by notifying the Cardinal Vicar for the Diocese of Rome (currently Camillo Cardinal Ruini). The Camerlengo then seals the Pope’s private apartments. He would also arrange for the “ring of the fisherman” and the papal seal to be broken. He then makes preparations for the Papal funeral rites, the novemdieles, the nine days of mourning.

During the interregnum (the period the office of the Pope is vacant), it is the Camerlengo who is responsible for the government of the Church. He must arrange the funeral and burial of the Pope. He directs the election of a new pope, assisted by three Cardinals, elected by the College of Cardinals, with three new Cardinals elected every three days.

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All heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia are suspended from exercising their authority during the interregnum (and are expected to resign their posts immediately on the election of the new Pope). The only exceptions to this are the Cardinal Camerlengo, the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, the Major Penitentiary (William Cardinal Baum), the Cardinal Archpriest of St Peter’s Basilica and the Vicar-General for Vatican City (both offices are held by Virgilio Cardinal Noe). These continue in their posts during the interregnum.

After 15-20 days of “General Congregations”, sermons at their Titular Churches and mourning for the Pope after his funeral, the Cardinal Electors enter the Conclave to choose which of them will emerge as Holy Roman Pontiff.

Upon entering the Conclave, the Cardinals must take an oath to follow the rules set down by the Pope and maintain absolute secrecy about the voting and deliberations. The penalty for revealing any of these secrets is automatic excommunication.

The Cardinals take seats around the wall of the Sistine Chapel and take a ballot paper on which is written “Eligo in suumum pontificem” — “I elect as supreme Pontiff…”. They then write a name on it, fold it, and then proceed one by one to approach the altar, where a chalice stands with a paten on it. They hold their ballots high to show they have voted, place them on the paten, finally sliding them into the chalice.

The Cardinal Camerlengo and his three assistants count the ballots. Each assistant reads the name silently, then aloud, then writes it on a tally sheet and passes the ballot to the next assistant. When the ballots reach the third assistant, he runs a needle and thread through the centre of each ballot to join them all together.

The ballots are then burned, as well as all notes written during the vote. If a new Pope is not elected, the papers are burned with straw to produce black smoke. White smoke, produced by burning the paper ballots alone, announces the election of a new Pope.


The Pope was originally chosen by those senior clergymen resident in and near Rome. In 1059, the electorate was restricted to the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and the individual votes of all Cardinal Electors were made equal in 1179. The Pope is usually a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals, but theoretically any male Catholic (including a layman) may be elected; Pope Urban VI was the last Pope who was not already a cardinal at the time of his election. Canon law requires that if a layman or non-bishop is elected, he receives episcopal consecration from the Dean of the College of Cardinals before assuming the Pontificate. Under present canon law, the Pope is elected by the cardinal electors, comprising those cardinals who are under the age of 80.

The Second Council of Lyons was convened on May 7, 1274, to regulate the election of the Pope. This Council decreed that the cardinal electors must meet within ten days of the Pope’s death, and that they must remain in seclusion until a Pope has been elected; this was prompted by the three-year Sede Vacante following the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268. By the mid-Sixteenth century , the electoral process had more or less evolved into its present form, allowing for alteration in the time between the death of the Pope and the meeting of the cardinal electors.

The election of the Pope almost always takes place in the Sistine Chapel, in a meeting called a “conclave” (so called because twenty days after the Pope’s death, the present cardinal electors are theoretically locked in, cum clavi , until they elect a new Pope). Three cardinals are chosen by lot to collect the votes of absent cardinal electors (by reason of illness), three are chosen by lot to count the votes, and three are chosen by lot to review the count of the votes. The ballots are distributed and each cardinal elector writes the name of his choice on it and pledges aloud that he is voting for “one whom under God I think ought to be elected” before depositing his vote. Balloting continues until a Pope is elected by two-thirds majority (since the promulgation of Universi Dominici Gregis the rules allow for a simple majority after a deadlock of twelve days).

One of the most famous parts of the conclave is the means by which the results of a ballot are announced to the world. Once the ballots are counted, they are burned, and the smoke indicates the results: The Dean of the College of Cardinals asks the Pope-elect to confirm his acceptance, and then announces the name he has chosen for himself (starting in 535, the Pope has customarily chosen a new name for himself during his Pontificate). The senior cardinal deacon then announces from a balcony over St. Peter’s Square the following proclamation: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam! (“I announce to you a great joy! We have a Pope!”)

Until 1978, the Pope’s election was followed in a few days by a procession in great pomp and circumstance from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica, with the newly-elected Pope borne in the sedia gestatoria. There the Pope was crowned with the triregnum and he gave his first blessing as Pope, the famous Urbi et Orbi (“to the City [Rome] and to the World”). Another famed part of the coronation was the lighting of a torch which would flare brightly and promptly extinguish, with the admonition Sic transit gloria mundi (“Thus fades worldly glory”). Traditionally, the pope-elect takes the Papal oath (the so called “Oath against modernism”) at his coronation, but John Paul I and later John Paul II have refused to do so.

As has been hitherto noted, the Latin term Sede Vacante (“vacant seat”) refers to a Papal interregnum, or the period between the death of the Pope and the election of his successor. From this term is derived the name Sedevacantist , which designates a category of dissident, schismatic Catholics who maintain that there is no canonically and legitimately elected Pope, and that there is therefore a Sede Vacante ; one of the most common reasons for holding this belief is the idea that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and especially the replacement of the Tridentine Mass with the Novus Ordo Missae are heretical, and that, per the dogma of Papal infallibility (see above), it is impossible for a valid Pope to have done these things.

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