WEST PALM BEACH, Fl, February 28, 2013 – Pope Benedict officially resigns today, the first Pope to abdicate in more than 600 years.
While rumors and speculation continue about the reasons behind his decision, much of the world has now moved to looking toward the next Pope, and what it will mean.
The Vatican has long been a bastion of “soft diplomacy,” helping to make changes through back-channel negotiations rather than threats of armed intervention or sanctions. Although the Pope does not have weapons at his disposal, he does have the backing of more than a billion Catholics and the tremendous respect of leaders around the world.
The question now centers on what happens next, and who will become the next Pope.
The Church has a very clear, regulated process to choosing a pope.
When the Pope dies or resigns, the Church goes into a period of “empty seat” (“sede vacante”) when the Papacy is unoccupied. This period lasts for several weeks when a pope dies, as the world holds a funeral and mourns the loss.
During the time when there is no pope, a cardinal known as the camerlengo is named interim chief of the Church. He and three elected assistants have limited powers to oversee the Church and make routine decisions.
The cardinals then prepare to hold the conclave, which is the meeting where they elect the next pope. The conclave must start 15 to 20 days after the vacancy starts.
However, because there was no death of a pope this time, Benedict allowed the cardinals to start the process earlier. The planned retirement has allowed the cardinals to flock to Vatican City, versus a death which comes at its time, leading to the cardinal needing get Rome for their meetings.
The cardinals will meet informally on Friday, March 1, and formally on March 4, to decide when to start the conclave.
The conclave takes place in the famous Sistine Chapel, and a total of 115 cardinal electors are expected to participate in the decision-making process.
The selection process can be difficult. Once the conclave starts, the cardinals will meet in completely secret, closed-door sessions called general congregations. The purpose of the meetings are to address the most important issues facing the Catholic Church and to begin exploring candidates best suited to address those issues. Cardinals will align behind candidates and begin lobbying for their choices.
After the first day of discussion, the cardinals will hold two daily balloting sessions to vote for candidates. The conclave will end when one of the candidates receives a majority of two-thirds plus one.
The longest conclave in history was 105 days, from November 30, 1799 to March 14, 1800, and ultimately elected Pope Pius VII (Giorgio Barnaba Luigi Chiaramonti).
Once the cardinals agree on the next pope, they place the voting ballots in a stove and produce black smoke to signal to those holding vigil that they have selected a pope.
The cardinals then meet with the pope-elect and ask if he accepts the position. Once he agrees, he selects the name by which he wishes to be known to the world.
The cardinals then burn more ballots and produce white smoke to signal that the world now has a new pope and cheers can be heard around the world.
Finally, the new pope appears on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square to greet and bless the public.
A few days later, the new pope celebrates his first Mass.
Although there is no clear front-runner to replace Pope Benedict, there is increasing speculation the next pope could come from Latin America, Africa, Asia or even the United States.
This would deviate from Church history, which has always selected a pope from Europe. Analysts say the growing Catholic population outside Europe, the need for a break from the scandals of the past, and changing value of the Church could sway cardinals toward a non-traditional choice.
However, European cardinals dominate the selection process, with 62 votes out of 115. 28 of the electors are from Italy, raising the prospect of an Italian pope for the first time since John Paul I. The Italian most likely to get the nod is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. Benedict selected him to lead the Vatican’s Lenten spiritual retreat this year, and could suggest that Benedict is supporting Ravasi.
There is increasing talk about Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana as the favorite. Bookmaker Paddy Power says Turkson is the strongest contender, with the best odds. However, his choice would be controversial for some followers, and the Church may not yet be ready to enter the racial debate.
Another prominent contender is Cardinal Odilo Scherer from Brazil. Scherer leads the largest largest archdiocese in the world’s largest Catholic country. He is traditional and pragmatic, but may not have enough backing from the European-dominated cardinals.
From Asia, the strongest candidate is likely Cardinal Luis Tagle, Archbishop of Manila. His youth, however – he is only 55-years-old – likely works against him.
Although there initially was hope for an American pope, that choice seems increasingly unlikely. Even Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has argued against an American pope, saying it would be “unwise.”
The highly regulated process, the surprise abdication of Benedict and the lack of an obvious front-runner have many worried that the selection will take an extended time.
However, most hope the new pope will emerge before March 31, and be able to oversee the Easter mass.