International Politics

Habemus papam: Electing a Pope

Recently there has been speculation that 85-year-old Pope Francis may be considering resigning the papacy due to health issues. Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, resigned from the papacy for health reasons in 2013. Before Benedict’s resignation, it had been almost 600 years since a pope gave up the lifelong appointment. The election of a pope may be mysterious to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

A very brief explanation of the Church hierarchy:


A bishop is a priest who the Pope has elevated to preside over a diocese.


The Pope nominates Bishops to become Cardinals. All of the Cardinals together are known as ‘the College of Cardinals.’ They are responsible for assisting the Pope at liturgical services known as capellæ papales, providing him with their counsel, and assisting in the governing of the Church.


The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, considered by Catholics to be the ‘Vicar of Christ,’ the successor of St. Peter, and is the head pastor of the Roman Catholic Church.

After the death or resignation of The Pope, the College of Cardinals elects a new Pope. The current Pope cannot name his successor, and Canon Law bars Cardinals aged 80 from electing a Pope. The cardinals may choose a priest, deacon, or even a layman as pope. In 1294 a married man was elected Pope Celestine V. Ten days after the death or resignation of the Pope, the College of Cardinals hold electoral meetings. These meetings are held in a Conclave, a closed room where the Cardinals are supposed to be isolated from outside influences.

A new Pope is declared elected when a candidate wins two-thirds of the vote of the College of Cardinals.

The public is given hints as to what is going on in the Conclave. When a vote is taken that does not result in a new Pope, the ballots are burned. Black smoke indicates to the observers that there is no decision yet. When a Pope is finally elected the burning ballot’s smoke is white. The black and white smoke is not a miracle. not a miracle. Black smoke is created by a mixture of potassium perchlorate, anthracene and sulphur added to the burning ballots. White smoke is produced with potassium chlorate, lactose and a pine resin burned with the ballots.

When the College of Cardnals have elected a new Pope this announcement- in Latin- will be made:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum;
habemus Papam:
Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,
Dominum …
Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem …
qui sibi nomen imposuit …

The English translation:

I announce to you a great joy;
we have a pope:
The most eminent and most reverend lord,
Lord [first name of winning candidate]
Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church [candidate’s surname]
who has taken the name [papal name].

Should Pope Francis, like his predecessor, decide to resign, it may be the beginning of a trend of popes retiring at a time of their choosing rather than governing the Church with declining abilities and then dying in office.

The Sexy Politico: A little about Pope Francis

Thanks and a tip of the hat to DonkeyHotey for the image.

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