The election of a new Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope) is absolutely dominating the news cycle- every puff of black smoke warrants another report. But what exactly is going on?

To elect the new pope, the College of Cardinals have to meet for a papal conclave, an election meeting that’s convened since 1059. It takes place in the Sistine Chapel (you know, the room with the massive Michelangelo painting for a ceiling) within St. Peter’s Basilica. Generally, they have 15 days after the death of a pope to come together, and the same goes for resignation- in this instance, Benedict XVI’s resignation, which makes him the first pope to resign since 1415.

To call it an important meeting is a vast understatement. Catholics consider the pope to be the apostolic successor of Saint Peter, whom Jesus named the shepherd and rock of His church, and the earthly head of the Roman Catholic Church. And it’s a big flock- there are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, more than 12 million of whom live in Canada.

Since 1970, cardinals have to be under the age of 80 to vote. A supermajority is needed to elect a new pope, as well as the acceptance of the person elected. In this year’s conclave, 115 of the 207 cardinals who make up the College will be voting, which means a candidate needs 77 votes to pass.

During the election, the cardinals are not allowed to have any contact with the outside world- no phones, no TV, no newspapers, nothing. And though it’s usually not a long process- the conclave in 2005 was only two days- some in the past have taken their time. The longest went on for two years, angering the host village so much that citizens tried to force them out with a simple diet of bread and water, before opening the roof to expose the cardinals to the weather. In the end, measures were taken to ensure that future conclaves didn’t go on too long: after 12-13 days, the vote goes to majority, not the usual two-thirds supermajority.

As for the black smoke you see coming out of the pipe chimney signifying a failed vote, it’s straw mixed with the ballots, which they burn after every vote. The white smoke, signifying they have elected a new pope, is flax; either way, chemicals were added in 1978 to make the colors more distinct. The white smoke message of the cardinals’ vote isn’t as old as the process itself- it was set up in 1914 with the election of Pope Benedict XV.

Steven Spriensma is a journalist and former news editor at Ignite News. He has a degree in Geography from McMaster University and an advanced diploma in journalism from Mohawk College.

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