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The Path to a New Pontiff

6 minute read
Jeff Israely/Rome and Kristina Dell/New York

1 “The Pope is dead,” the ring is broken

According to legend, a Cardinal attending a dying Pope would strike the Pontiff three times on the forehead with a small silver hammer, looking for a response. There was to be no hammer when John Paul II died, just a one-word question repeated three times by a Cardinal: “Karol?†The Pope’s failure to respond to his baptismal name then allowed that Cardinal, known as the camerlengo, to announce, “The Pope is dead.†The camerlengo is charged with managing the selection of a new Pope. He cannot make new rules and must strictly follow canon law and the written instructions of John Paul II. Among his duties: smashing JohnPaul II’s ring of the Fisherman, which symbolized his authority, and sealing the papal residence. Later the world’s Cardinals will be summoned to the Vatican.

2 Novemdiales: Days of mourning

In the early centuries of the church, papal selections were haphazard and sometimes violent affairs. The College of Cardinals, the top advisers to the Pope, have been the sole electors of new Pontiffs since 1431, using a process that has become highly regimented. Their first job is to plan the Pope’s funeral and the upcoming conclave, or election of a new Pope. Before the official nine-day mourning period, called the novemdiales, John Paul II’s body will lie in state in St. Peter’s Basilica. Meanwhile, the Cardinals will organize the formal funeral Mass, which could be held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope is likely to be buried in a crypt beneath the basilica, near 147 of his predecessors. John Paul II left written instructions that the conclave to elect a new Pope must begin 15 to 20 days after his death. The politics begin.

3 Locked away until “Habemus Papamâ€

In March 499, an assembly of bishops banned any discussion of succession while a Pope was still alive. That tradition largely continues today, but the Cardinals are widely known to discuss potentialcandidates and exchange views before they are locked in the Sistine Chapel for the election. Once inside, the Cardinals are sworn to secrecy, and the paper balloting begins. Only Cardinals younger than 80 may vote, and the winner must get two-thirds of the votes. If no winner emerges after 12 to 13 days, the Cardinals may elect a Pope by simple majority. An announcement will then be made from the central window of St. Peter’s Basilica: “Habemus Papam†(We have a Pope).

Forces in Play


The Roman Curia provides 17% of conclave participants. Several Cardinals in overseas postings have also recently served at the Vatican and may pool votes for a megamanager Pope to halt an increasing sense of administrative drift.


Until John Paul II’s election, every Pope since 1523 had been Italian. And although its bloc has shrunk over time, Italy still has the largest national conclave contingent, with 20. An Italian candidate may also win the support of American and European Cardinals who share concerns about Islam and mounting secularism.


Central and South America have been one of the church’s main growth centers for 50 years, with nearly 500 million believers and an 18% conclave bloc to show for it. A Latin victory could emerge if Asian and African Cardinals united behind a candidate who understands the developing world


The papal lineage is replete with saints, nobles and even a few knaves

33 months

Duration of the longest papal conclave, from 1268 to 1271. The weary residents of Viterbo, Italy, turned against the bickering electors, tore the roof off the building in which they were meeting and cut their food supply to spur them into action. Gregory X, left, soon became Pope

31 years

Duration of the longest pontificate since St. Peter. Pius IX, left, ruled from 1846 to 1878. John Paul II was next, at 26 years, five months and two weeks

12 days

Length of the shortest pontificate, Urban VII (1590). Others point to Stephen II (752), who died four days after his election but before his consecration as Pope


Largest number of Poples selected in a 100-year period, from 867 (Adrian II) to 965 (John XIII)


Year that Pontiffs began adopting reign names. A man named Mercurius was elected Pope, and since it would have been unseemly for the Vicar of Jesus Christ to bear the name of a pagan god, he chose to be called John II. Today a Pope’s choice of name may be a clue to his philosophy


Number of times Benedict IX, left, became Pope, in 1032, 1045 and 1047. He was the nephew of his two immediate predecessors and became notorious for selling the papacy and maneuvering to reclaim it

Sources: New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia; Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II, by Richard P. McBrien; Conclave, by John L. Allen Jr.; Heirs of the Fisherman, by John-Peter Pham

A.D. 32

St. Peter

St. Linus

St. Anacletus

St. Clement I

St. Evaristus


St. Alexander I

St. Sixtus I

St. Telesphorus

St. Hyginus

St. Pius I

St. Anicetus

St. Soter

St. Eleutherius

St. Victor I


St. Zephyrinus

St. Callistus I

St. Urban I

St. Pontain

St. Anterus

St. Fabian

St. Cornelius

St. Lucius I

St. Stephen I

St. Sixtus II

St. Dionysius

St. Felix I

St. Eutychian

St. Caius

St. Marcellinus


St. Marcellus I

St. Eusebius

St. Miltiades

St. Sylvester I

St. Marcus

St. Julius I


St. Damasus I

St. Siricius

St. Anastasius I


St. Innocent I

St. Zosimus

St. Boniface I

St. Celestine I

St. Sixtus III

St. Leo I

St. Hilarius

St. Simplicius

St. Felix III (II)

St. Gelasius I

Anastasius II

St. Symmachus


St. Hormisdas

St. John I

St. Felix IV (III)

Boniface II

John II

St. Agapetus I

St. Silverius


Pelagius I

John III

Benedict I

Pelagius II


St. Gregory I


Boniface III

St. Boniface IV

St. Deusdedit

Boniface V

Honorius I


John IV

Theodore I

St. Martin I

St. Eugene I

St. Vitalian



St. Agatho

St. Leo II

St. Benedict II

John V


St. Sergius I


John VI

John VII



St. Gregory II

St. Gregory III

St. Zachary

Stephen II

Stephen III

St. Paul I

Stephen IV

Adrian I


St. Leo III

Stephen V

St. Paschal I

Eugene II


Gregory IV

Sergius II

St. Leo IV

Benedict III

St. Nicholas I

Adrian II


Marinus I

St. Adrian III

Stephen VI


Boniface VI

Stephen VII


Theodore II

John IX


Benedict IV

Leo V

Sergius III

Anastasius III


John X

Leo VI

Stephen VIII

John XI


Stephen IX

Marinus II

Agapetus II

John XII


Benedict V


Benedict VI

Benedict VII

John XIV

John XV

Gregory V

Sylvester II




Sergius IV

Benedict VIII

John XIX

Benedict IX

Sylvester III

Benedict IX

Gregory VI

Clement II

Benedict IX

Damasus II

St. Leo IX

Victor II

Stephen X

Nicholas II

Alexander II

St. Gregory VII

Victor III

Urban II


Paschal II

Gelasius II

Callistus II

Honorius II

Innocent II

Celestine II

Lucius II

Eugene III

Anastasius IV

Adrian IV

Alexander III

Lucius III

Urban III

Gregory VIII

Clement III

Celestine III


Innocent III

Honorius III

Gregory IX

Celestine IV

Innocent IV

Alexander IV

Urban IV

Clement IV

Gregory X

Innocent V

Adrian V

John XXI

Nicholas III

Martin IV

Honorius IV

Nicholas IV

St. Celestine V


Boniface VIII

Benedict XI

Clement V


Benedict XII

Clement VI

Innocent VI

Urban V

Gregory XI

Urban VI


Boniface IX

Innocent VII

Gregory XII

Martin V

Eugene IV

Nicholas V

Callistus III

Pius II

Paul II

Sixtus IV

Innocent VIII


Alexander VI

Pius III

Julius II

Leo X

Adrian VI

Clement VII

Paul III

Julius III

Marcellus II

Paul IV

Pius IV

St. Pius V

Gregory XIII

Sixtus V

Urban VII

Gregory XIV

Innocent IX


Clement VIII

Leo XI

Paul V

Gregory XV

Urban VIII

Innocent X

Alexander VII

Clement IX

Clement X

Innocent XI

Alexander VIII


Innocent XII

Clement XI

Innocent XIII

Benedict XIII

Clement XII

Benedict XIV

Clement XIII

Clement XIV

Pius VI


Pius VII



Gregory XVI

Pius IX



St. Pius X

Benedict XV

Pius XI

Pius XII


Paul VI

John Paul I


John Paul II



After being locked in the Sistine Chapel all day, the Cardinals get to sleep in a new $20 million hotel at the Vatican. No TV or phone calls allowed.


With 117 voting Cardinals from 52 countries, the conclave offers up a bewlidering range of possible voting blocs and alliances

Voting Cardinals U.S. and Canada 14 Latin America 21 Europe 58 Africa 11 Asia 11 Oceania 2

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