13 Mar 2013

Electing a new Pope – the key questions

A replacement for Pope Benedict should be chosen soon. How will he be elected and what is the significance of black and white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel roof?

A replacement for Pope Benedict should be chosen soon. How will he be elected and what is the significance of black and white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel roof? (Getty)

Cardinals are meeting for a second day in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, but as the Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Collins, told Channel 4 News: “This isn’t politics – this is the choosing of the Vicar of Christ on earth.”

How is the Pope elected?

The next Pope will be selected by the 115 cardinals under the age of 80, who carry on voting until a candidate reaches a two-thirds majority.

Pope John Paul II changed the rules to allow his successor to be elected by half of those voting plus one, but Benedict opted to return to a two-thirds majority.

Meetings are held and three cardinals are elected as scrutineers. Ballot papers are placed in a golden urn, overlooked by Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

The results are read out by the scrutineers, who are responsible for announcing when a two-third majority has been reached.

The man chosen then has to decide what he wants to be called in the future. Joseph Ratzinger opted for Benedict.

The ritual kissing of the new Pope’s ring is then undertaken, before dinner is served – with wine.

Who is likely to be chosen?

The cardinals have been formally considering their choices since yesterday, but we have no idea who is ahead because of the secrecy surrounding the conclave process.

The electors are shielded from the outside world and would be loath to brief a friendly journalist about their deliberations – because excommunication would follow if they were found out.

There is not a clear frontrunner, as there was in 2005, when Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI – was chosen.

But the Italian Angelo Scola, Brazilian Odilo Scherer and Canadian Marc Ouellet are seen as strong contenders.

What is the significance of black and whote smoke over the Vatican?

The smoke from a chimney on the Vatican roof signifies whether agreement has been reached on Benedict’s successor.

Black means there is still work to be done. White signifies that a decision has been made.

The smoke comes from the cardinals’ burning ballot papers. Chemicals are used to give it a black or white appearance.

Are the Swiss Guards really from Switzerland?

The Swiss Guards are the Vatican’s military and are there to protect the Pope, although these days they are best known for their ceremonial role.

In previous centuries, when Switzerland was a poor country (a difficult concept to comprehend in 2013), Swiss soldiers served as mercenaries in other European countries. Their presence in Rome is a reminder of those days.

The guards must be Catholic, single males with Swiss citizenship who have completed basic training with Switzerland’s military.

They have to swear an oath pledging to “faithfully, loyally and honourably serve the Supreme Pontiff (actual Pope) and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them”.

Their official uniform, which looks like a large skirt, harks back to the Renaissance.

Is a new Pope likely to modernise the Catholic church?

It would be wrong to suggest that the choice of Pope has no ramifications for the way the church is perceived.

But whoever is elected is unlikely to institute radical change on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. There will not be a Tony Blair/Clause Four moment.

After all, more than half of the electors were chosen by Pope Benedict.

What is in the new Pope’s in-tray?

The Catholic church needs worshippers, and Benedict’s successor has a job on his hands reaching out to those in the west who have drifted away from the flock and show no sign of returning.

He has to address allegations of corruption in the Vatican and will find himself under pressure over the issues of gay marriage, homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

Then there is the thorny matter of sexual abuse by paedophile priests.

The new Pope will need to act quickly to ensure that allegations are thoroughly investigated and dealt with in a way that satisfies victims, including the punishment of offenders.