The Church has no "assistant pope" capable of taking over in the event of the resignation or death of the reigning pope. Thus, the Church needs to elect a new pope quickly.
Only 115 cardinals -- those who have not reached their 80th birthday -- are eligible to vote for the new pope. On MAR-04, 107 of them met in the first day of a series of pre-conclave meetings, called "general congregations." The remaining eight cardinals were in transit to Rome. The 107 cardinals took an oath of secrecy, and decided to write a letter of "greeting and gratitude" to Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Francis George of the U.S. said:
"I would imagine that as we move along, there will be questioning of cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed, and in that context anything can come up."
The final cardinal who will take part in the conclave arrived in Rome from Vietnam on MAR-07. There was speculation that the conclave may begin about MAR-11, in the hope of having the new pope installed by MAR-17. That is the Sunday before Palm Sunday the start of Holy Week. 1
In theory, any Roman Catholic can be elected pope as long as he is male. Women are not allowed to be ordained as priests or even deacons in the church. However, following centuries of tradition, he is certain to be one of the 115 cardinals. The selection process begins on MAR-12 when the cardinals have filed into the Sistine Chapel and a Vatican official shouts "Extra omnes" ("Everybody out"). Those not involved in voting or support of the cardinals then leave.
The chapel has been outfitted with a raised floor to even out the existing rough surface. Windows have been covered in order to prevent snooping from outside. Electronic jammers will prevent any cell phone calls from inside. Doctors are available for medical support; priests are on hand for confessions.
The cardinals will take four votes every day until one candidate achieves a two-thirds majority. Each cardinal writes the name of his choice for pope on a blank piece of paper and folds it three times. They are counted by a group of three cardinals who confirm that everyone has voted. They tally the numbers. After each vote and announce the results. The ballots are then burned in a small furnace with a chemical additive to generate black smoke. If a cardinal receives the necessary number of votes and agrees to become pope, then the ballots will be burned with a different additive. This produces a puff of white smoke from the Chapel chimney to inform the Catholics waiting in St. Peter's Square that a new pope has been chosen. Traditionally, there are cries of "Habemus papam" ("We have a pope.") Vatican Television has cameras focused on the chapel chimney to register the black or white smoke of burning ballots after every vote. White smoke indicates that a pope has been elected.
A tailor will be present with a supply of papal robes, small, medium and large sized. One will be selected for the new pope. He will be presented to the waiting crowds in St. Peter's Square.
Pope John Paul II was elected in about 24 hours. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI's election in 2005 took two days. The longest conclave during the past century lasted for five days.
2013-MAR-09: Speculation about which cardinal will be selected as the next pope:
Among the front-runners for this conclave are, in alphabetic order:
Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary. He heads the European Bishops' Conference.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada. He is the head of the Congregation of Bishops.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy. He is the Vatican's cultural minister.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina. He is a former chief of staff at the Vatican.
Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil. He heads the largest diocese in the country with the greatest number of Catholics.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria. He recently raised the suggestion that the Church revisit the topic of priestly celibacy. Under pressure, he recanted.
Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy. La Repubblica newspaper claims that he has the support of 40 cardinals.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines. At 55 years-of-age, he is the youngest of the front runners.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. He is the head of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace. He is one of the few moderates among the other very conservative cardinals. 3
Cardinal Scola of Italy and Cardinal Scherer of Brazil are known to be the favorites of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. 2
As of MAR-09, bookmakers favor Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy; they were offering 3:1 odds.
2013-MAR-11: Final preparations for the conclave:
The Vatican announced on MAR-08 that the conclave to elect the Church's 266th pope will begin on Tuesday afternoon, MAR-12. 2
The support staff for the conclave have been assembled and sworn in. They include:
Archbishop Lorenzo Baldissieri, the secretary of the College of Cardinals;
The master of ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini;
Priests of the papal sacristy;
Priests who will be available for confessions;
Doctors and nurses; and
Technical services personnel, like shuttle bus drivers, security officers, and members of the Swiss Guard.
On Tuesday morning, MAR-12, the 115 cardinals entered the Santa Marta residence where they stay when they are not in the Sistine Chapel. They attended mass at 10 AM at St. Peters. A solemn procession to the Sistine Chapel occurred at 4:30 PM Rome time, 11:30 AM Eastern Daylight Savings Time. At 4:45, individuals who are not taking part in the conclave left and the Sistine Chapel door was locked.
The Cardinals will meditate and hold the first vote. Vespers are scheduled for 7:30. The cardinals will return for dinner at 8 PM and bed.
In the past, conclaves have varied greatly in length: Conclaves have lasted:
1903 – Pope Pius X (3 days, 7 elections)
1914 – Pope Benedict XV (4 days, 10 elections)
1922 – Pope Pius XI (5 days, 14 elections)
1939 – Pope Pius XII (2 days, 3 elections)
1958 – Pope John XXIII (4 days, 11 elections)
1963 – Pope Paul VI (3 days, 6 elections)
1978 – Pope John Paul I (2 days, 4 elections)
1978 – Pope John Paul II (3 days, 8 elections)
2005 – Pope Benedict XVI (2 days, 4 elections)
They averaged 3.1 days, 7.4 elections.
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, compared the 2005 conclave with the present one. He said:
"Last time there was a single, powerful figure; three or four times superior to all the other cardinals. That person was a unique theologian, and his name was Joseph Ratzinger. This time things are different. Therefore the choice must be made between one, two, three, four … 12 different candidates."
André Vingt-Trois, Cardinal of Paris, has estimated that there are initially "roughly half a dozen candidates" who are widely favored to be selected as the next pope. However, surprises may well happen. There is an old Catholic saying: "He who enters the conclave as a pope emerges a cardinal."
Tradition may have an influence in the conclave. Gregory III became pope in the year 731. During the almost 1,300 years since, no pope from a country outside of Europe has ever been elected. 5 The 13 century monopoly may be broken in 2013, as many of the popular choices are from the Philippines, Americas, and Africa. Since one of the major tasks of the new pope will be to impose control over the Curia -- the Vatican's civil service -- a cardinal from outside Europe might have an advantage.