Watch CBS News

What Is The Conclave?

BOSTON (CBS) - Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley will be one of 115 cardinals eligible to elect the new pope once Benedict XVI steps down February 28.

There hasn't been an election since 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope.

An official date for this meeting has not been set yet, but it's expected during the first or second week of March.

So what is a conclave and what happens there?

It's a private meeting of Roman Catholic cardinals at the Vatican who remain in seclusion together until they choose a new pope.

According to the Roman Catholic Church, there are three phases for the election of a pope.


The first phase begins with the formal resignation of Pope Benedict XVI at 2 p.m. Boston time February 28th. Typically, this period begins when a pope dies, but since Benedict is stepping down, he will leave the Vatican and stay at the pope's summer home at Castel Gandolfo.  He will not participate in the election of his successor.


The College of Cardinals will meet on or about February 28 and an official date will be set for the conclave. This process usually begins 15 to 20 days after the death of a pope. But, since Benedict XVI resigned and there is no 9-day mourning period, the conclave could start as early as March 6 (six days after the resignation) or no later than March 18.


This is the actual election of the pope, by the 117 cardinals under the age of 80 who are eligible to vote. The conclave will begin with a morning mass in St. Peter's Basilica, followed by a procession to the Sistine Chapel.

The Cardinals will take an oath to maintain secrecy and follow the apostolic constitution.  They must remain behind closed doors until a new pope is elected.

Here is how Pope John Paul II described it in his update of the conclave rules in 1996.

"The Sistine Chapel is therefore to remain an absolutely enclosed area until the conclusion of the election, so that total secrecy may be ensured with regard to everything said or done there in any way pertaining, directly or indirectly, to the election of the Supreme Pontiff.

"In a special way, careful and stringent checks must be made, with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability, in order to ensure that no audiovisual equipment has been secretly installed in these areas for recording and transmission to the outside."

Once the deliberations begin, they will need a two-thirds majority to elect a new pope.

During the process, a crowd will gather in St. Peter's Square waiting for the historic announcement.

In April 2005, Pope Benedict's election took a little more than 24 hours.  According to CBS News, the last six conclaves averaged 1.8 days.

Each time the cardinals vote, they burn their ballots. Black smoke indicates they haven't reached a majority yet.

If a new pope has been chosen, the smoke will be white.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.