Notwithstanding Nightwriters fine w/u and personal commentary aside, here’s a little more detail on how a pope is chosen….
A little history
In the “olden days”, popes were chosen by local authorities of the church such as clergymen who lived in and around Rome. The process was often corrupted by leaders of the time who used their influence to determine the outcome. Even if they didn’t like the outcome, they often appointed their own pope who became known as the antipope.
By the time 1059 rolled around, then Pope Nicholas II, in an effort to stem the corruption, declared that all electors of the pope must have attained the rank of cardinal. This still didn’t fix the problem since some of the cardinals' votes were more influential than others. Recognizing this problem, Pope Alexander III in 1179 declared that each of the cardinals involved in the election process would have an equal vote. There was much rejoicing throughout the land!
When we hit 1274, Pope Gregory X came up with the idea that once a pope died, all the cardinals must gather within 10 days and that they would be kept secluded until a new pope was chosen.
By around 1600, after some tinkering here and there, most of the electoral procedures that are used today were in place.
Actually the pope can be chosen in one of three ways. The first method is that of a unanimous voice vote. In this method, all of the cardinals must agree on who the new pope will be. Rarely, if never used.
The second method entails that the cardinals agree on the selection of a 9-15 member committee which will then in turn agree on a new pope. Again, rarely if never used.
That brings us to the third and most common method for choosing a new pope, election by ballot. This is how it works
Step 1 – The sitting pope usually dies. I’ve never heard of an instance in modern times of a pope stepping down or resigning the office. See the update at the end of this w/u for more info on this topic.
Step 2 – Upon the pope's death, the dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals calls a meeting of the cardinals. This meeting is always held in the morning and begins no more than 20 days after the death of the pope
Step 3 – At this meeting, the cardinals will draw lots in order to select three of their members to distribute ballots to the voters. They also select three members to count the votes and three members to review the results
Step 4 – Blank ballots are prepared and distributed to the voters
Step 5 - Each voter (of which there are about 120, all active cardinals and under the age of 80) will write the name of one man (sorry ladies!) on their respective ballot. They then carry said ballot to an altar and pledge to perform their duty with honor and integrity. They will then deposit their ballot into a container that is covered by a plate.
Step 6 - After the voting is completed, those chosen to count and review the votes will begin the tallying process.
It’s at this point where I should probably mention that it takes a two thirds majority of the vote plus one in order to be chosen pope. Pope John Paul II changed that a little in 1996 when he declared that if after twelve or thirteen days of voting, and no winner was forthcoming, a simple majority would do.
Step 7 - After the tallying process is complete, the results are announced to the cardinals.
Step 8 - If nobody wins, the process is repeated. If nobody wins again, two more sessions of voting are scheduled for the afternoon.
Again, I feel obligated to interrupt, after each round of voting the ballots are burned. If no winner has been determined, a chemical is mixed with the burning ballots that cause them to emit black smoke from the chimney of the Vatican Palace. This alerts the people waiting outside the Vatican that a pope has not been selected.
Step 9 - Yes folks, we have a winner! Once a candidate receives the required number of votes, the dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals asks him if he accepts the decision. Should he accept the position (I guess if he says “no”, the process resumes.) he will also be asked what name he has chosen. The name is then announced to the cardinals who then pass on their congratulations.
Step 10 - The ballots are then burned, only this time, they are treated so that they will emit white smoke. The white smoke alerts the people outside the Vatican that a new pope has been agreed upon.
Step 11- The oldest of the cardinals then makes an appearance on the balcony of the Vatican Palace that overlooks St. Peter’s Square and proclaims to the crowd “Habemus Papam” - “We have a new pope!” And there is much rejoicing throughout the land.
Step 12 - The new pope then makes his first public appearance. He appears on the balcony and gives his blessings to Rome and the world in general.
Often a coronation ceremony ensues. The latest pope, Pope John Paul II, perhaps in homage to his humble beginnings, refused a coronation ceremony and was installed a pope during a simple Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
UPDATE - (see Step 10) - April 6, 2005, apparently Pope John Paul II also decreed that the bells at the Vatican will also chime when a new Pope has been selected. This is because that the white smoke that has been emitted in the past often times appears gray and the people gathered to watch the proceedings often become confused.
In the age of instant communications via cell phone and e-mail and internet, it's nice to know that the Catholic Church hasn't been left behind.
UPDATE - February 2013: Well, never say never. It seems the current pope, Pope Benedict XVI has decided to resign the office effective February 28, 2013. Step 1 in the process I described earlier in this w/u will be updated accordingly once the events unfold. Stay tuned for further details.