Conclave comes from the Latin cum clave, meaning “with key” because the cardinals who elect a new pope are literally locked in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican until someone is chosen. After the death of a pope, all cardinals under the age of eighty are summoned to Rome. They may elect any baptized male in the world, but they usually choose a cardinal who is already there in the conclave with them. No one is allowed to campaign for himself, and there are no primaries, conventions, or political parties.
While the press and media love to speculate and list possible candidates as papabile (Italian for “pope-able”), there is also an old Roman saying which sums the situation up more accurately: “He who enters the conclave as pope, leaves a cardinal.” This means that most of the time, it is anyone’s guess who the College of Cardinals will elect. No one expected a non-Italian (after 450 years)—and from Poland, no less—when Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978. Even money was on Cardinal Josef Ratzinger when he was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Half the media thought it would be an Italian, South American, or an African. The other half thought maybe the Germans might have a chance. Sometimes the “favorite” or the best known going in is elected, but often it is the obscure and unknown candidate who is chosen.
A two-thirds majority is required to elect the bishop of Rome, who is simultaneously the pope and Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church. If after twenty-one ballots no one receives two-thirds of the vote, then whoever gets a simple majority (50 percent plus one) on the twenty-second ballot is elected. The cardinals have a secret ballot, writing down their votes on a piece of paper that is folded and then placed in a large chalice. After the votes are tabulated, if someone gets two-thirds majority, he is asked if he accepts. If he does not or if there is no two-thirds majority, the ballots are burned with wet straw. This makes black smoke, and the chimney is seen by the multitude of faithful crammed into Saint Peter’s Piazza. Black smoke means no pope, and the crowd moans, boos, and keeps praying. Whenever there is a two thirds majority and the selected man accepts, the ballots are burned without straw, generating white smoke, and bells are simultaneously rung so the crowd knows a pope has been chosen.
Then the new pope is asked what name he wants to use. He can use his own baptismal name or keep tradition and pick a new name. After that, they whisk him away, throw on a white cassock, and a cardinal announces from the balcony as they did April 19, 2005: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam! Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Josephum, Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Ratzinger, Qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedictum XVI.” “I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope! The most eminent and most reverend Lord, Lord Joseph, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Ratzinger, Who takes to himself the name of Benedict XVI.”