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Pope/Election, death and abdication

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Election, death and abdication


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. Pope Urban VI, elected 1378, 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 7 May 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.

Traditionally, the vote was conducted by acclamation, by selection (by committee), or by plenary vote. Acclamation was the simplest procedure, consisting entirely of a voice vote, and was last used in 1621. Pope John Paul II abolished vote by acclamation and by selection by committee, and henceforth all Popes will be elected by full vote of the Sacred College of Cardinals by ballot.

The election of the pope almost always takes place in the Sistine Chapel, in a sequestered meeting called a "conclave" (so called because the cardinal electors are theoretically locked in, cum clave, 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 folding and depositing his vote on a plate atop a large chalice placed on the altar (in the 2005 conclave, a special urn was used for this purpose instead of a chalice and plate). The plate is then used to drop the ballot into the chalice, making it difficult for any elector to insert multiple ballots. Before being read, the number of ballots are counted while still folded; if the total number of ballots does not match the number of electors, the ballots are burned unopened and a new vote is held. Otherwise, each ballot is read aloud by the presiding Cardinal, who pierces the ballot with a needle and thread, stringing all the ballots together and tying the ends of the thread to ensure accuracy and honesty. Balloting continues until a Pope is elected by a two-thirds majority.[1]

One of the most famous aspects of the papal election process is the means by which the results of a ballot are announced to the world. Once the ballots are counted and bound together, they are burned in a special stove erected in the Sistine Chapel, with the smoke escaping through a small chimney visible from St. Peter's Square. The ballots from an unsuccessful vote are burned along with a chemical compound in order to produce black smoke, or fumata nera. (Traditionally, wet straw was used to produce the black smoke, but this was not completely reliable. The chemical compound is more reliable.) When a vote is successful, the ballots are burned alone, sending white smoke (fumata bianca) through the chimney and announcing to the world the election of a new pope. At the end of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, church bells were also rung to signal that a new pope had been chosen.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals then asks the cardinal who has been successfully-elected two solemn questions. First he asks, "Do you freely accept your election?" If he replies with the word "Accepto", his reign as Pope begins at that instant, not at the inauguration ceremony several days afterward. The Dean then asks, "By what name shall you be called?" The new pope then announces the regnal name he has chosen for himself. (If the Dean himself is elected pope, the Vice Dean performs this duty).

The new pope is led through the "Door of Tears" to a dressing room in which three sets of white papal vestments (immantatio) await: small, medium, and large. Donning the appropriate vestments and reemerging into the Sistine Chapel, the new pope is given the "Fisherman's Ring" by the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, whom he first either reconfirms or reappoints. The pope then assumes a place of honor as the rest of the cardinals wait in turn to offer their first "obedience" (adoratio) and to receive his blessing.

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!"). He then announces the new pope's Christian name along with the new name he has adopted as his regnal name.

Until 1978 the pope's election was followed in a few days by the Papal Coronation. A procession with great pomp and circumstance formed from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter's Basilica, with the newly elected pope borne in the sedia gestatoria. There, after a solemn Papal Mass, the new pope was crowned with the triregnum (papal tiara) and he gave for the first time as pope the famous blessing Urbi et Orbi ("to the City [Rome] and to the World"). Another renowned part of the coronation was the lighting of a bundle of flax at the top of a gilded pole, which would flare brightly for a moment and then promptly extinguish, with the admonition Sic transit gloria mundi ("Thus passes worldly glory"). A similar sombre warning against papal hubris made on this occasion was the ritual exclamation "Annos Petri non videbis", reminding the newly crowned Pope that he would not live to see his rule lasting as long as that of St. Peter, who according to tradition headed the church for 35 years and has thus far been the longest reigning Pope in the history of the Catholic Church.

A traditionalist Catholic belief claims the existence of a Papal Oath sworn, at their coronation, by all popes from Pope Agatho to Pope Paul VI, but which since the abolition of the coronation ceremony is no longer used. There is no reliable authority for this claim.

The Latin term sede vacante ("vacant seat") refers to a papal interregnum, the period between the death of a pope and the election of his successor. From this term is derived the term sedevacantism, which designates a category of dissident 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 Mass of Paul VI are heretical, and that, per the dogma of papal infallibility, it is impossible for a valid Pope to have done these things. Secevacantists are considered to be schismatics by the mainstream Roman Catholic Church.

For centuries, the papacy was an institution dominated by Italians. Prior to the election of the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978, the last non-Italian was Pope Adrian VI of the Netherlands, elected in 1522. John Paul II was followed by the German-born Benedict XVI, leading some to believe the Italian domination of the papacy to be over.


The current regulations regarding a papal interregnum—that is, a sede vacante ("vacant seat")—were promulgated by John Paul II in his 1996 document Universi Dominici Gregis. During the "Sede Vacante", the Sacred College of Cardinals, composed of the pope's principal advisors and assistants, is collectively responsible for the government of the Church and of the Vatican itself, under the direction of the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church; however, canon law specifically forbids the cardinals from introducing any innovation in the government of the Church during the vacancy of the Holy See. Any decision that requires the assent of the pope has to wait until the new pope has been elected and accepts office.

In recent centuries it was traditional, when a Pope was judged to have died, for the Cardinal Chamberlain to confirm the death ceremonially by gently tapping the Pope's head thrice with a silver hammer, calling his birth name each time. This custom was not followed at the death of Pope John Paul I[2] and probably was not revived upon the death of Pope John Paul II. The Cardinal Chamberlain then retrieves the Ring of the Fisherman and cuts it in two in the presence of the Cardinals. The deceased pope's seals are defaced, to keep them from ever being used again, and his personal apartment is sealed.

The body then lies in state for a number of days before being interred in the crypt of a leading church or cathedral; the popes of the 20th century were all interred in St. Peter's Basilica. A nine-day period of mourning (novendialis) follows the interment of the late Pope.


The Code of Canon Law 332 §2 states, "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone." This right has been exercised by, among others, Pope Celestine V in 1294 and Pope Gregory XII in 1409, Gregory XII being the last to do so.

It was widely reported in June and July 2002 that Pope John Paul II firmly refuted the speculation of his resignation using Canon 332, in a letter to the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. Nevertheless, 332 §2 caused speculation that (1) Pope John Paul II would have resigned as his health failed, or (2) a properly manifested legal instrument had been prepared which effected his resignation if he could not perform his duties. Pope John Paul II, however, did not resign. He died on 2 April 2005 after a long period of ill-health and was buried on 8 April 2005. After his death, it was reported in his last will and testament that he considered abdicating in 2000 as he neared his 80th birthday. That portion of the will, however, is unclear and others interpret it differently.

  1. With the promulgation of Universi Dominici Gregis in 1996, a simple majority after a deadlock of twelve days was allowed, but this was revoked by Pope Benedict XVI by motu proprio in 2007.
  2. Sullivan, George E. Pope John Paul II: The People's Pope. Boston: Walker & Company, 1984.

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