What to expect at Conclave in unusual case of Pope Benedict stepping down from Vatican role


The ballot papers themselves are rectangular with “I elect as supreme pontiff” printed at the top and each cardinal prints or writes a name in a way that disguises his handwriting.  One at a time they approach the altar with the folded ballot held up, he kneels and prays and then places the ballot in a silver and gilded bronze urn, much like a wok with a lid. Cardinals called ‘scrutineers’ count the ballots. After the ballots are read aloud they are placed on a thread and placed in another urn. They are then burnt.

Since 1903, white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel has signalled the election of a pope; black smoke signals another vote.

When a pope is finally elected, the cardinal dean asks him, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” Rarely does anyone say no.  St Philip Benize was offered it in 1271 and fled and hid until another candidate was chosen. 

Sacristy of Tears

After the ‘yes’,  he is led into the ‘Sacristy of Tears’ or commonly called ‘Room of Tears,’ a small room off the Sistine Chapel. It is here that the enormity of what has just happened hits the new Pope, though the tears may be of sorrow or joy. Traditionally they were said to be tears of humility as a Pope was following in the footsteps of St Peter; others would contend the tears were because essentially the Pope becomes a ‘prisoner’ of the Vatican and would be bowed down by the weight of the office.

The new Pope picks one of three sizes of Papal garments – presumably small, medium or large – and return to the High Altar to receive the homage of the cardinals. Meanwhile, the ballots are burnt in a stove with a chemical which turns the smoke white, telling the world of the newly elected Pontiff.

A Cardinal is then sent to the Loggia of the Benedictions on the façade of St Peter’s where he says: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. I announce to you a great joy! Habemus Papam. We have a Pope!” He then announces the name of the cardinal and the name he has chosen to use as Pope.

The new Pope steps onto the balcony and therefore onto the stage of world and church history. He may grant his first blessing to the world.

Some days later, the new Pope will go down into the foundations of St Peter’s to the tomb of Peter, the first Pope and first bishop of Rome, and pray. Then with all the cardinals, he will process into St Peter’s Square to begin his first public Mass and receive the main symbols of his office: the fisherman’s ring and the pallium.