That New Pope Smell: How Popes are Chosen

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The Roman Catholic Papacy is one of the oldest institutions in the world, second only to the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan. Since its inception, there have been 266 popes, and a couple of anti-popes as well. 

The pope is not only the head of a religion but also the leader of a sovereign, albeit small, state as well. The process of choosing a pope is unlike any other in the world. 

Learn more about the selection process for picking a new pope on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

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This episode is sponsored by Audible.com.

If you are interested in recent papal history, the audiobook I would recommend is The Two Popes: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World by Anthony McCarten. The Two Popes tells the story of the decision of Benedict XVI to resign and the election of Pope Francis I. Written by the screenwriter of the movie of the same name, it tells the story of how two popes ended up living in the same building. 

You can get a free one month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere  or clicking on the link in the show notes.

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Officially, there isn’t a thing called “the pope”. The pope is the English word for what the Italians and Spanish call “papa” or the French call “pape”. The official title is just the Bishop of Rome. 

How the Bishop Rome is chosen has changed greatly over time, with more formal and codified procedures coming into place as time advanced. 

Tradition holds that Saint Peter was the first Bishop of Rome. After leaving Jerusalem, he worked his way over to Rome where he was executed around 64 to 67 CE. It isn’t clear how the popes immediately after Peter were selected (but we do know they weren’t even called popes or bishops at that point). It is believed that Peter hand-selected his next three replacements: Linus, Cletus, and Clement. 


The truth is, the list of popes from this period of the very early church is in doubt because such poor records were kept, and Christianity was mostly an underground movement at the time. It is believed that most of the leaders of the Christian movement in Romer were selected by consensus or by church elders. 

There wasn’t really a codified way to select a pope for the first 1,000 years. The small Christian community would vote directly in the early years. As Christianity spread, Emperors would get involved  approving candidates. Eventually, Holy Roman Emperor Henry III just appointed several popes without the formality of an election.

In fact, it was Henry’s actions that led to the biggest change in how popes were selected. 

In 1059, Pope Nicholas II issued a papal bull titled In nomine Domine (in the name of our Lord) laid down the rule that only Cardinals could elect a pope. 

Here I should explain what a Cardinal is.

In the Catholic church, there are three different levels of the clergy: deacons, priests, and bishops. 

A cardinal was an honorific given to the bishops of the seas around Rome, to all the senior priests of the parish churches in Rome, and the deacons in the papal household.

Other than voting for the pope, the only real thing which Cardinals can do is wear their distinctive red hat and outfit. 

Eventually, the honor of being a Cardinal was extended exclusively to bishops and then to bishops outside of Rome. The distinctions of Cardinal Bishops, Cardinal Priests, and Cardinal Deacons still exist, but now it only reflects seniority within the College of Cardinals.

The tradition of Cardinals coming from the parish churches of Rome also still exists as each Cardinal, no matter where they are from in the world, is assigned to be the titular head of one of the parish churches in Rome. If you visit Rome and walk past a church, you will see the coat of arms for the Cardinal who is assigned to that church. 

The whole point of appointing cardinals as the sole electors of a pope was to remove political interference in the process. Of course, that only had limited success.

After the death of Pope Clement IV in November 1268, it took the Cardinals three years to elect a new pope because there was so much interference, especially from the French.

The pope who came out of this mess in 1271 was Gregory X. He issued a decree that from now on, the cardinals would have to decide cum clave which means “with a key” in Latin. They would be locked in until they had elected a pope, and there was to be no communication or interference from the outside. That rule still stands today, and that is why a papal election is called a conclave. 

The number of Cardinals was originally set to 70 in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V. This number was raised to its current limit of 120 by Pope Paul VI in 1975 who also set the rule that anyone who is 80 at the time the conclave is called cannot participate. 

Who can become a pope is pretty simple. Any male who is a member of the Catholic church in good standing could, in theory, be elected pope. In reality, every pope for over 600 years has been a member of the College of Cardinals. Pope Urban VI was the last non-Cardinal to be elected pope in 1378. The last non-priest to be elected pope was Leo X, aka Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici. He had been named a Cardinal at the age of 13 and never became a priest until he was elected pope. They had to hold off the announcement for 3 days so he could get ordained a priest and a bishop first.  

Medici money went a long way back then. 

For someone to be elected pope, they must have ? of the vote of all Cardinals in the conclave. This rule has flipped flopped multiple times throughout history. Most recently Pope John Paul II said that only a simple majority was required if the election went more than 33 ballots, however, it is easy to see the problem with this. If your candidate doesn’t have ? of the vote but does have a majority, just wait it out, and eventually, you will win. This was reversed by Pope Benedict XVI.

So, lets put this all together and go through what will happen during the next conclave. 

At some point, the pope will resign or pass away. The word is that Pope Francis is very open to stepping down and he had a great deal of respect for what Pope Benedict did. He is 83 years old at the time I am recording this. There have even been rumors that it would happen in 2020. We’ll see.  

In the event of the death of the pope, the Cardinal Camerlengo, who is the head of the papal household,  will verify the death. This used to be done by calling out the birth name of the pope three times, but now it is done by a doctor.

The pope’s ring will be smashed by the Camerlengo so no one can use his seal. This officially ends the papacy. At this point, until a new pope is named, the church is in a period called Sede Vacante, which is Latin for “the seat is vacant”. 

During this period, the Camerlengo will be responsible for the day-to-day workings of the Vatican, but cannot make any appointments, or issue any religious decrees. 

The first order of business is the funeral and burial of the pope, which usually takes place four to six days later.

All members of the Roman Curia are removed from their positions immediately at the end of a papacy, except for the Camerlengo. 

Once the funeral has taken place, the conclave will begin two to three weeks later. 

If there is a resignation, the whole process is much smoother, simply because there is no funeral to attend to. Grated, however, that has only happened once in the last several centuries, seven years ago. 


As things are happening in the Vatican, Cardinals from all over the world will be flying into Rome for the funeral and/or conclave. All the Cardinals will be staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, or St. Martha’s House, in Vatican City. It is a dormitory/hotel for visiting clergy which was built in 1996. 

The conclave will be organized by the Camerlengo and the Dean of the College of Cardinals. Each Cardinal is allowed to have an assistant with them during the conclave.

Once the conclave starts, the Cardinals will convene in the Sistine Chapel and each Cardinal will take an oath to observe the procedures and keep the proceedings secret. 

At that point, the command of “Extra omnes!” will be given, and anyone who is not participating in the conclave will have to leave. The doors are then locked and no one can get in or out, other than in the case of a medical emergency. 

There are also modern precautions taken as well. Before the last conclave, the Sistine Chapel was swept for bugs, and all wifi connections are jammed or shut off, so no one can communicate electronically. All TV’s, radios, computers, and phones are prohibited from entering the conclave. The participants cannot get news from the outside so they cannot be influenced.

On the afternoon of the first day, a ballot may take place. If no one is elected, the next day four ballots will take place. Two in the morning and two in the afternoon. 

Each vote, called a scrutiny, is run by nine Cardinals selected at random. The nine will run both scrutinies in the morning or afternoon if needed. 

Each Cardinal gets a paper ballot with the phrase  Eligo in Summum Pontificem which is Latin for “I vote for supreme pontiff”.

Each Cardinal will take their ballot with the name of their choice up to the altar, take an oath and drop it into a ballot box. All ballots are anonymous. 

The ballot box is shaken, and then the ballots poured out and counted to make sure the numbers match. The random Cardinals chosen by lot as scrutineers then go through each ballot, verifying the name, and reading each ballot out loud. 

The ballots are then double-checked.

If no one has been elected, and it was the first scrutiny of the morning or afternoon, they will immediately move to the second scrutiny. If it is the last scrutiny of the session, the ballots from both scrutinies will be burned together. A small furnace is set up in the Sistine Chapel for this purpose. 

The burning of the ballots is a signal to the outside world that a ballot has taken place.

If no one was elected, the chemicals potassium perchlorate, anthracene, and sulfur would be added to the ballots to create black smoke. Black indicates that no one was elected.

If someone was elected, potassium chlorate, lactose, pine rosin will be added to create a white smoke to announce to the world that they have elected a pope.

In the event that someone has been elected, the Dean of the College of Cardinals will then ask the elected Cardinal if they accept the election. It is not required that someone accepts. It is assumed that if someone were to not accept, they would let everyone know before a vote has taken place.

The moment the Cardinal says they accept, it is at that moment they become Pope, assuming they are a bishop. If they are not a bishop, they would become the Bishop of Rome after being ordained as a bishop. 

If in the event that the person elected is not in the Conclave, they will be summoned to Rome and the conclave will be put on hold while they wait for them to arrive. 

Immediately after the new pope accepts their election, the next question asked to him by the Dean will be “Quo nomine vis vocari? Which means “By what name do you wish to be called?” The new pope will then give the papal name that they will go by during their pontificate.

Once the white smoke has gone up, bells in the Vatican will start ringing. It is at this moment that people around Rome will start to congregate in St. Peter’s square to see the new pope. 

The new pope is then taken to the Room of Tears, which is attached to the Sistine Chapel. The name of the room comes from the fact that so many new pope cry at this point and are overwhelmed by emotion. There are several papal garments of different sizes on standby for the new pope. Depending on their size, the hope is that at least one of them should approximately fit.

The Cardinals will then all come up individually to congratulate the new pope and pledge to give him their support and loyalty. 

After this has taken place, and the crowd has gathered, the Cardinal Protodeacon, the senior Cardinal Deacon, will go out to the balcony of St. Peter’s overlooking the square and make the following announcement in Latin:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: 

Habemus Papam!

“I announce to you a great joy:

We have a Pope!”

He will then give the birth name of the new pope and his new papal name. 

The pope then gives his Urbi et Orbi blessing, which means to the City and to the World. 

And that is how you make a pope.

Even if you aren’t Catholic, the process of a conclave has a lot of rich history and tradition which has been followed for centuries, and it is something which only happens infrequently. There have only been eight conclaves in the last 100 years.

The next time one does happen, now you’ll have a better idea of what is happening behind the doors of the Sistine Chapel.