The Vatican just announced that the Papal Conclave will begin this upcoming Tuesday, March 12.
The conclave is an event in which the cardinals of the Catholic Church elect a new pope. It is one of the oldest democratic institutions in the world and persisted through ages in Europe in which heads of state were determined by dynastic succession. The papal conclave decides on the new pope through a secret balloting process.
Although theoretically any Roman Catholic can be elected pope, since 1379 every pope has been selected from the College of Cardinals. Paper ballots are passed to each cardinal to write the name of their chosen candidate; however, they cannot vote for themselves. If a cardinal receives two-thirds of the vote, he becomes the new pope. In the event that a pope is not elected, one more vote will take place during the day. If there is still no pope, there may be four votes a day on the second and third days of the conclave. The fourth day is specifically set aside for prayer and discussion with seven rounds of voting to follow after. After each vote the ballots are burned. If a new pope is elected the smoke above the Vatican will be white, otherwise it is black.
Many have suspected that the new pope may be non-European. Two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world today live in the southern hemisphere, a proportion some believe may increase to three-fourths. Potential non-European candidates for pope include Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.
By resigning the papacy and not forcing the cardinals to select a post-mortem replacement while dealing with followers mourning the passing of a pope, Benedict XIV set up a situation in which the cardinals are freer to move the Church a different direction if they so choose. Cardinals are not working through nostalgic commentary that tends to follow the death of a world leader, as was evident with the death of Pope John Paul II.
History may be made during the 2013 papal conclave. The election of a pope from the southern hemisphere would show a marked change in the direction of the Catholic Church’s traditional European popes.