How to Become Pope | How is the Pope Selected?

How to Become Pope | How is the Pope Selected?
In 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires was elected pope. Taking the name Francis, he became the first ever pope to hail from the Americas, and the first from outside of Europe since the 8th century. How did Pope Francis come to be so lucky? Well, when the time comes to pick a new pope, there is a carefully outlined process that must be followed. How is the pope selected? We’ll break it down for you.

How Is the Pope Selected?

The Summons

Following the death or resignation of the pope, a Papal interregnum occurs. An interregnum is a period of discontinuity in a government or organization. This time of transition is also called a sede vacante, which literally means “when the seat is vacant.” During the interregnum, all the cardinals from around the world (known as the College of Cardinals) are summoned to Vatican City to cooperate in the choosing of a new Supreme Pontiff.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI changed the rules to make only cardinals under the age of 80 eligible to vote, presumably to avoid problems with health and declining mental faculties. There are currently over 200 cardinals worldwide, but typically only around half of those are eligible voters or healthy enough to travel to the Vatican, and the rules state that no more than 120 can actually be included in any one vote.

The Papal Conclave

When the College of Cardinals convenes to elect a new Roman Pontiff, is is known as the Papal conclave. Today, Papal conclaves are held in the Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace. Since Pope Gregory X’s decree in 1274, cardinal electors are locked in seclusion cum clave (Latin for “with a key”) to avoid any political or outside interference. Cardinals are not allowed to leave the Sistine Chapel until a new Bishop of Rome has been selected.

Deliberations during the Papal conclave can take anywhere from days to months. Technically, the new pope can be any baptized Catholic male, but in practice, the pope is typically chosen from among the cardinals.

While sequestered together in the Vatican, the College of Cardinals will discuss among themselves the merits of potential candidates. Although campaigning is not allowed, there is no denying the many political aspects involved in conclave. During this time coalitions are formed, preferences shared, and opinions influenced. The entire process takes place in secret (upon threat of excommunication) in order to keep any details from emerging. The Sistine Chapel is even swept for bugs and hidden cameras prior to voting in order to ensure there are no leaks.

The Papal Election

A two-thirds majority is required to elect a new pope. Voting takes place in the Sistine Chapel and occurs twice each morning and twice each afternoon until someone receives enough votes to be elected. For each ballot, every voting cardinal writes their choice on the provided piece of paper and specifically folds it twice before submitting. As the votes are read out they are pierced with a needle to show they have been counted, and after the vote the ballots are burned for secrecy, although sealed records are kept for historical purposes.

The Decision

Each time an unsuccessful vote takes place, ballots are burned along with a chemical compound to create black smoke, or fumata nera, which travels through a chimney to alert the public there is still no pope. When a decision is finally reached, the ballots are burned with chemicals to create white smoke, or fumata bianca, and this serves to notify the people that a decision has been reached.

Choosing a Name

After completion of a successful vote, the new pope is first asked if he will accept his canonical election as Supreme Pontiff. If the answer is yes, the next question is what name he would like to be called as pope. Choosing a new name is not a requirement, merely a long-standing tradition. Once he has chosen a name the process is complete, the Papal conclave is ended, and the new pope emerges to be announced to the world.

List of Catholic Popes since 1900

Leo XIII (1878-1903)
St. Pius X (1903-14)
Benedict XV (1914-22)
Pius XI (1922-39)
Pius XII (1939-58)
St. John XXIII (1958-63)
Paul VI (1963-78)
John Paul I (1978)
St. John Paul II (1978-2005)
Benedict XVI (2005-2013)
Francis (2013—)

The history of the Catholic Church is a long and storied one, and the process of choosing a new pope is fittingly conventional and structured. While many of the requirements have been put in place to protect the integrity of the vote, many others are simply ancient traditions that serve to underline the historical importance of this momentous decision.

Do you know the most common pope names? Test your knowledge in the quiz below!


Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 152 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.