Benedict XVI Retires: How They’ll Elect a New Pope

With the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is retiring, the church leadership begins the necessary steps to find a new Pontiff — a unique and unusual process whose origins date back centuries

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Max Rossi / Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he would step down from his position as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming the first Pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. With his retirement, the church leadership begins the necessary steps to find a new Pope — a unique and unusual process whose origins date back centuries.

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Starting soon after the Pope officially steps down at the end of the month, Cardinals from around the world will head to Rome to take part in a procedure known as a conclave. The group, known as the College of Cardinals, will stay in the Casa di Santa Marta — a $20 million hotel-style residence inside the Vatican walls — and won’t leave the Vatican grounds until the new Pope has been selected.

The Universi Dominici Gregis, the Catholic Church constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996, dictates that all the electors must be under the age of 80 — leaving 118 Cardinals eligible to take part out of a total of 210. With the conclave mooted to take place next month, at least one Cardinal will just miss out on the voting process.

The conclave will take place behind closed doors in the Vatican’s famous Sistine Chapel, completely isolated from the outside world. The first ballot may be held on the first afternoon of the conclave, after morning Mass. After that, the conclave will hold two ballots in the morning and two ballots in the afternoon until a Pope is elected.

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Technically, any baptized male Catholic is eligible. But since 1378, all new Popes have come from within the College of Cardinals. Officially, only the Holy Spirit holds sway over the results. But more terrestrial considerations can also influence the Cardinals’ choice: age, nationality, life experience, personality and positions on major issues facing the church are all factors. And as TIME’s Howard Chua-Eoan explains, this conclave will be especially politically charged.

After each voting round, tradition dictates that the ballots are bound together and burned in a special oven erected temporarily inside the chapel. The smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney signals to the expectant faithful in St. Peter’s Square the outcome of the vote.

If the smoke is black (an effect produced by a chemical compound burned along with the ballots), it means that no candidate has achieved the two-thirds majority needed to win — and another round of balloting will take place. If the smoke is white, a new Pope has been elected.

A senior Cardinal then takes to the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to announce, in Latin: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus papam.” Which translates as, “I announce to you news of great joy: we have a Pope.”

The new Pope will be free to take any name he chooses. Some Popes honor a favorite saint or a Pope they admire, while others honor their immediate predecessors: John Paul II followed John Paul I, who came after Paul VI and John XXIII.

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