Electing a pope: A look at the process facing Cardinals

Pope Benedict XVI's resignation sets in motion a complex sequence of events to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The timing of Pope Benedict's surprise announcement, coming days before the beginning of Lent - the 40 day period before Easter, the most important feast in the Catholic Church - presents a challenge to church officials who would like a new pope in place by March 24, the beginning of Holy Week.

The process for selecting the new pope will begin in March, with the laws governing the process being the same as those in force after a papal death. Here is the procedure:

  • The Vatican summons a conclave of cardinals that must begin 15-20 days after Benedict's Feb. 28 resignation.
  • Cardinals eligible to vote — those under age 80 — are sequestered within Vatican City - including handing over cell phones and other devices - and take an oath of secrecy. The Cardinals meet every day in the Sistine Chapel until a new pope is elected and have no contact with the outside world until the process is complete.
  • Any baptized Roman Catholic male is eligible for election as pope, but only cardinals have been selected since 1378.
  • Two ballots held each morning and two each afternoon in the Sistine Chapel. A two-thirds majority is required. Benedict in 2007 reverted back to this two-thirds majority rule, reversing a 1996 decision by Pope John Paul II, who had decreed that a simple majority could be invoked after about 12 days of inconclusive voting.
  • Ballots are burned after each round. Black smoke means no decision; white smoke signals that cardinals have chosen pope and he has accepted. Bells also signal the election of a pope to help avoid possible confusion over color of smoke coming from chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
  • The new pope is introduced from the loggia overlooking St. Peter's Square with the words "Habemus Papam!" (Latin for "We have a pope!") and he imparts his first blessing.