Predicting who will be elected the next pope when the College of Cardinals convenes in a papal conclave in early March is far more difficult than predicting the next President. That hasn’t stopped American media pundits from speculating that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s early departure for the Vatican on Wednesday signals that he may be at the front of the line to become the next pontiff.
The process by which the 117 members of the College of Cardinals eligible to participate in the papal conclave (those under the age of 80) elect the leader of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics remains shrouded in mystery. While it is known that the participating cardinals vote in successive rounds of balloting, and that a two-thirds super majority is required to elect the next pope, the content of the internal debates on the merits of the different candidates is kept behind closed doors.
From the moment the 117 cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel to begin the papal conclave, the deliberations are unknown to the outside world. The only communications about the proceedings come when the results of each ballot are signaled through the color of smoke emitted from the chapel’s chimney. Black smoke means no new pope. White smoke means a new pope has been elected. This is the manner in which the new pope, the apostolic successor of St. Peter, has been selected for centuries.
The last papal conclave was held more than seven years ago in 2005 upon the death of Pope John Paul II. It took two days and four ballots of that papal conclave to elect German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. It marked the first papal conclave in 27 years, since 1978, when the College of Cardinals convened twice.
In August of that year they took two days and four ballots to elect Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I after the death of Pope Paul VI. Then, after Pope John Paul I died a mere 33 days into office, the papal conclave took two days and eight ballots to elect Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II that October.
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