Electing a Pope


On April 2, 2005 Pope John Paul II  died in Rome. He led the Roman Catholic church for more than 26 years.

When a pope dies there are many things that the Vatican must do before a new pope takes office. The busiest person during this period is the camerlengo , or papal chamberlain. First he confirms the pope’s death and locks the pope’s private apartment. He removes the Ring of the Fisherman, which is a symbol of the pope’s power. The camerlengo also organises a meeting of the cardinals and  the election of the new pope.

The dead pope’s body is embalmed and shown  to the people in St. Peter’s Basilica. Four to six days after death, the funeral takes place. The pope is buried next to others in a crypt under the main altar of the cathedral.

The College of Cardinals gets together to elect a new pontiff. This conclave is held in the Sistine Chapel and  starts 15 to 20 days after a pope has died.  Only the cardinals and very few other people are present. The doors are sealed and nobody is allowed in or out of the chapel until a new pope has been chosen.
Only 120 out of 194 cardinals are allowed to vote. Cardinals older than 80 are not allowed to take part in the conclave. In order to elect a new pope a two-thirds majority of the cardinals is needed.

Four ballots are held every day—two in the morning and two in the afternoon. John Paul II ordered that if three days pass without a result the cardinals should rest for one day. If , after a few days, no pope is elected by a two-thirds majority, the cardinals agree to continue the vote with a simple majority.


The ballots are burned after every second vote. If no pope is elected black smoke comes out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. This tells the people waiting outside that the cardinals have not agreed on choosing a pope.  When a pope is elected, white smoke signals are released.

When one candidate receives enough votes by the cardinals he is asked if he accepts the election. He must also choose a name by which he wants to be called.

After an election the oldest cardinal of the conclave steps to the balcony above St. Peter’s Square  and announces Habemus Papam” which means “We have a new pope”. The new pope then steps out on the balcony and waves to the thousands of Catholics waiting at St. Peter’s Square. He then gives his first blessing to Rome and to the world .

The newly elected pope remains the head of the Roman Catholic church for his whole life. He can retire before he dies but very few popes have done this before.

About  two weeks after the death of John Paul II the German cardinal Josef Ratzinger was elected  the new pope. He calls himself Benedict XVI. It was one of the shortest conclaves in history. Shortly after his election the new pope gave his first blessing to thousands of people  who gathered  in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

In 2013, Benedict XVI announced that we was not healthy enough to continue his papacy and stepped down as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.



Related Topics



  • accept = to agree or say yes
  • announce =  to officially tell people about something
  • ballot = a system of voting OR a piece of paper on which you write who you vote for
  • basilica = a big church with a long hall and a round end
  • blessing = sign from God
  • bury = to put a dead person into a grave
  • camerlengo = the Italian word for chamberlain
  • candidate = somebody who is said to be good for the job
  • chamberlain = an important person who manages the house of a pope
  • conclave = a private and secret meeting
  • confirm = to show that something is true
  • continue = to go on
  • crypt = room under a church where people are buried
  • elect = to vote for
  • election = when people vote for somebody
  • embalm = to put chemicals on a body so that it cannot smell
  • funeral = to bury somebody after he has died
  • lock = close the door with a key so that nobody can get in or out
  • majority =the greater part of
  • papacy = being pope
  • papal = everything that has to do with the pope
  • pontiff = same as pope
  • present = to be there
  • receive = get
  • release = to let something go up or out
  • result = outcome
  • retire = to stop working
  • seal = to lock
  • simple majority =candidate who gets the most votes
  • take office = to become a pope