Conclave is the name given to the procedure used to elect the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. The same term is used to refer to the place in which the cardinals assemble to cast their votes.

The term Conclave comes from the Latin words cum (with) and clavis (keys) and was originally used to signify any room in a house that was not a passage room and could be locked.

Origins of the name

The election of Pope Gregory X marked the beginning of the use of the term “Conclave”.

In 1268 Pope Clement IV died in the town of Viterbo. At that time, the election of the new Pope was held in the same place in which the previous Pontiff had died. In 1270, following a year and a half of deliberations, the Sacred College still hadn’t agreed on a successor. By this point the residents of Viterbo had grown tired of waiting and decided to lock the Cardinals in the main hall of the Papal palace and not let them out until they had chosen the new Pope. To help speed up the process, the Prefect of Viterbo, Raniero Gatti, had their diets reduced and ordered the removal of a portion of the roof of the Papal palace, exposing them to the elements.

These extreme conditions only lasted 3 weeks, following which the Cardinals were allowed access to the other rooms of the Palace, but not to leave the building. It would take another 15 months before Gregory X was elected Pope.

This was the longest papal election in the history of the Catholic Church. To avoid this situation ever occurring again, the new Pope promulgated a new apostolic constitution Ubi Periculum, that put strict regulations on the election procedure and authorised the isolation of the Cardinal electors. Since then, the papal election went by the name Conclave.

When is a new Pope elected?

The election of a new Pope takes place following either the death or resignation of the incumbent Pontiff. When Pope Benedict XVI chose to step down in 2013, he became the first Pope in 600 years to abdicate.

When a pope dies or resigns, the governance of the Catholic Church passes to the College of Cardinals, in what is called the period of Sede Vacante. The College’s power, however, is extremely limited; merely enough to organise the Pope’s funeral, establish a date for the beginning of Conclave and oversee the basic day to day operations of the Church.

The election proceedings usually begin after 15 – 20 days of Sede Vacante.

Upon the death of the reigning Pontiff, the Camerlengo verifies that he is dead by calling him by his baptismal name 3 times, without response. He then makes the pronouncement “Vere Papa mortuus est” (truly, the Pope is dead). In addition to this tradition, until the start of the 20th century, the Camerlengo, who presides over the Sede Vacante, would also tap the deceased Pontiff’s forehead with a little hammer.

Papal elections before the Conclave

The first Popes after St. Peter were his close collaborators and were elected by the assembly of Roman Christians. According to legend, in 236 AD Pope Fabian was elected following what was considered a miraculous event, when a dove landed on his head during the assembly.

For a short time, following the Edict of Emperor Constantine, the office was reserved to members of the Roman clergy. The election would take place by general consensus or acclamation by the clergy of Rome and was then submitted for final approval by the local population.

Over the course of the following centuries, Papal elections were often characterised by political interference, especially by emperors.

It was only in 1059, with Pope Nicholas II’s edict, that voting became exclusively reserved to the Cardinal Bishops, excluding clergy and the general public from the process.

Conclave: the procedure

The Conclave was officially established by Pope Gregory X. His Ubi Periculum established that the Cardinal electors would convene in closed quarters, accompanied by no more than one servant each, and that their income would be suspended until the successful election of the new Pope.

Since 1432, the Conclave has always been held in Rome, and has taken place in the Sistine Chapel since 1878.

The College of Cardinal Electors is made up of a maximum of 120 members. Cardinals who have already turned 80 before the start of the Conclave do not take part.

A two-thirds majority is needed to elect the new Pope. If, after the 34th session of balloting, the required consensus is not reached, the subsequent round of voting will be between the two cardinals that received the most votes in the previous rounds.

Raised wooden flooring is installed in the Sistine Chapel especially for the event, as well as metal tubing and a cast iron stove in which the Cardinals’ ballots and notes are burned after every round of voting. A chimney is fitted above the Sistine Chapel; it releases smoke after each cycle of voting to announce the outcome: Black smoke indicates that consensus has not been reached, white smoke announces that a Pope has been elected.

Following the election, the Cardinal Deacon, or the first Cardinal in order of age and rank, asks the Pope-elect is he accepts the position. If he responds affirmatively, he is then asked what name he chooses to take as Pope.

At this point, the Cardinal Protodeacon makes the official announcement, by declaring Habermus Papam. The announcement is made from the Loggia at St. Peter’s Basilica and is followed by the Benediction by the new Pontiff.

Requirements necessary to become Pope

In theory, any male who has been baptised and has not entered into Catholic marriage can be named Pope.

In practice, almost all the Holy Fathers have been chosen among Cardinals and Bishops.

The last to become Pontiff without being a Cardinal or having any sacred order was Pope Leo VIII in 963.

The last Pope who was elected without being a Cardinal, but a Deacon, was in fact Gregory X, the same Pope who officially introduced the Conclave.