New Pope Selection: White Smoke And Other Things We Can Learn From 'EuroTrip'


Pope Celestine V was the last pope to be elected without papal conclave, the current method of choosing a pope. He was elected in 1294, only about 80 years after the Magna Carta. Pope Celestine was also the last pope to abdicate the papacy. Until Monday, that is. 

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation as the head of the Catholic Church on February 28. As of today, a new pope is here. As the church has done since 1294, the papal conclave convened to elect a new pope. Looking for reference to what happens at papal conclave, the sophomoric 2004 movie EuroTrip comes to mind. Especially a scene at the Vatican. But don't look too closely, EuroTrip got it mostly wrong.

Taking it with a grain of salt that EuroTrip is not meant to be a history lesson, and that the scene is only about three minutes long, the movie isn't all wrong, but it is mostly wrong.

Does the Cardinal Vicar of Rome actually ring the bell to notify the people of Rome that the Pope is dead? No, although he is a big cog in letting the public know that the pope has passed. 

EuroTrip did, however, get the part about the white smoke right. The story with the smoke is that if a new pope hasn't been elected, black smoke will emerge from the Vatican. White smoke signals that a new pope has been elected.

EuroTrip had white smoke coming out of the Vatican almost immediately after the death of the pope. They were right about the white smoke, but the new pope would not be elected so quickly.

With Pope Benedict XVI resigning rather than passing, the papal conclave will have more time to convene in selecting a new pope. Contrary to EuroTrip, here's how the election process will actually go down: 

First, cardinals from around the world (there are 125 cardinals right now), known as the College of Cardinals, will head to Rome. They will meet in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new leader of the church as the papal conclave. Tradition says that it will be a cardinal elected— although it could theoretically be any baptised male Catholic — so it's very likely that one of the cardinals will be elected.

The process is very secretive. The cardinals are sequestered in the Vatican in conclave until they reach a decision. Contact with the outside world is strictly prohibited. The cardinals discuss who should be the next pope until one is chosen. After discussion, a vote takes place. 

Each cardinal will cast a vote on a rectangular, paper ballot and place it into a silver chalice along with the rest of the votes. The ballots are counted and once the numbers are double-checked, they are burned. If the voting failst to reach a two-thirds majority, the smoke that will come from the burning ballots will be black. If the voting does elect a new pope, the smoke will be white so the world will know a decision has been reached.

For a more detailed look at the papal conclave, check this NPR story. For a less detailed look, rewatch EuroTrip