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Papal Election
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How Does One Become Pope?

How one becomes the head of the Catholic Church and spiritual leader to nearly 1.2 billion faithful can best be understood by breaking things down into two processes: the Church's hierarchy and the papal election itself. (Ed. Note: We understand that there are complexities within the Catholic Church and we are simply providing an easy to digest guide to the process.)

There are two essential requirements to become pope: you have to be a Catholic and a man.  However, this does not mean that any churchgoing person of faith can be selected Supreme Pontiff.  First you have to be ordained as a priest; this typically means spending several years studying in a seminary and taking vows of obedience and celibacy.  Priests are typically placed in charge of their own church or parish.

Once a priest, the next step on the ladder is to become a bishop All bishops around the world are ultimately ordained by the current pope.  But how does the pope get your name to make you a bishop?  The Vatican has ambassadors all around the world known as Apostolic Nuncios.  When a bishop retires or dies, other bishops submit a list of candidates to their nation's designated nuncio.  The nuncio goes over that list, interviews all the candidates, and makes his own decision as to who should fill that vacancy.  The nuncio then goes to the Vatican and offers his suggestion to the sitting pope, who either approves or vetoes that nomination, the latter of which would reset the whole process.

Now that you've been ordained a bishop, you're placed in charge of a diocese (a collection of local churches or parishes).  Only the pope himself can appoint you to the next level in the Church hierarchy: that of the Cardinalate, or College of Cardinals.  As a cardinal, your chief duty is to elect a new pope when the current pontiff dies or retires, in what is called a "papal conclave," though there are additional duties that cardinals have between conclaves.

This brings us to the papal election.  Since the mid-13th century, cardinals have gone into seclusion to avoid possible outside interference and/or prolonged deadlocks.  The term "conclave" comes from the Latin phrase "cum clave" meaning "with a key."  In present day, cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace.

There are 200-plus cardinals in the world, but not all of them are allowed to vote for the new pope.  Electors must be younger than 80;  a maximum of 120 cardinals are allowed to participate in voting.  To ensure secrecy, the cardinals and their assistants take an oath under penalty of excommunication, the Sistine Chapel is swept for listening devices, and all electronic devices are temporarily confiscated.

Cardinals vote only once on the first day of the conclave and four times each day thereafter, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon, until one of those electors achieves a two-thirds majority of all ballots cast.  If a round of balloting does not meet the two-thirds threshold, all the ballots, tally sheets and notes are taken to a small stove off the chapel and burned, causing black smoke to rise from the chimney vent.  If a cardinal receives two-thirds of the vote and accepts the position, the ballots and documents are burned in the same stove, but with added chemicals to ensure white smoke is seen billowing from the chimney vent, signaling to the world that a new pope has been elected.

The new pope is then led to a balcony in a room located next to the Sistine Chapel and proclaimed the newly elected pontiff.  It is at this time that the new pope's "papal name" is made known to the world.

Longest Reigning Popes
  • Pius IX (1846-1878): 31 years, 7 months and 23 days (11,560 days)
  • John Paul II (1978-2005): 26 years, 5 monhts and 18 days (9,665 days)
  • Leo XIII (1878-1903): 25 years, 5 months and 1 day (9,281 days)
  • Pius VI (1775-1799): 24 years, 6 months and 15 days (8,962 days)
  • Adrian I (772-795): 23 years, 10 months and 25 days (8,729 days)
  • Shortest Reigning Popes
  • Urban VII (September 15 – 27, 1590): reigned for 13 calendar days, died before coronation
  • Boniface VI (April 896): reigned for 16 calendar days
  • Celestine IV (October 25 – November 10, 1241): reigned for 17 calendar days, died before consecration
  • Theodore II (December 897): reigned for 20 calendar days
  • Sisinnius (January 15 – February 4, 708): reigned for 21 calendar days
  • (Ed. Note: Stephen II died of stroke three days after his election in March 752, but prior to his consecration as a bishop. However, a registration of popes from the Catholic Church does not feature Stephen II on its list, because the Code of Canon Law specifies that consecration marks the real beginning on a new pope's reign.)
    Popes Who Resigned
  • St. Pontian (July 21, 230 – September 28, 235): Exiled by Roman authorities.
  • St. Marcellinus (June 30, 296 – April 1, 304): Labeled a "traditor" for allegedly offering sacrifices to pagan gods during the Diocletian Persecution.
  • Liberius (May 17, 352 – September 24, 366): Banished by Roman Emperor Constantius II.
  • John XVIII (January 1004 – July 1009): Reasons for resignation unknown.
  • Benedict V (May 22, 964 – June 23, 964): Deposed by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I.
  • Benedict IX (October 1032 – September 1044; April 1045 – May 1045; November 1047 – July 1048): Deposed during his first term; sold the papacy to Gregory VI on a bribe; and resigned in his third reign.
  • Gregory VI (April/May 1045 – December 20, 1046): Accused of bribing Pope Benedict IX to resign so he could assume the papacy.
  • St. Celestine V, Order of Saint Benedict (July 5, 1294 – December 13, 1294): Retired because of competency issues.
  • Gregory XII (November 30, 1406 – July 4, 1415): Resigned to end the Papal Schism of the Middle Ages.
  • Benedict XVI (April 19, 2005 – February 28, 2013): Stepped down due to "lack of strength of mind and body."
  • Non-Cardinals Elected Pope
  • Urban IV (August 29, 1261 – October 2, 1264): Served as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem out of Acre prior to election.
  • Gregory X (September 1, 1271 – January 10, 1276): Served Archdeacon of Liège in present-day Belgium prior to election. He was not even a priest.
  • Celestine V (July 5, 1294 – December 13, 1294): Served as a monk and known as a Benedictine hermit prior to election.
  • Clement V (June 5, 1305 – April 20, 1314): Served as Archbishop of Bordeaux prior to election.
  • Urban V (September 28, 1362 – December 19, 1370): Served as Abbot of the Abbey of St. Victor prior to election.
  • Urban VI (April 8, 1378 – October 15, 1389): Served as Archbishop of Bari prior to election.