No exact template to follow but certain rules apply


What happens nextGiven that it has been nearly 600 years since a pope last resigned, not everyone is sure what happens next. At a briefing yesterday senior Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi repeatedly prefaced his answers with words of caution, saying there was no hard and fast Vatican template to follow on this one. However, some things are clear.

Firstly, Benedict remains on the Seat of Peter with all his spiritual and temporal powers intact until 8pm, February 28th, when he is due to officially resign. He then disappears from the picture, first moving to the much-loved papal summer residence at Castelgandolfo and then to a closed-order monastery within the grounds of the papal palace in the Vatican.

At present it is not clear what title he will be given. It is possible he could henceforth be known as the Bishop Emeritus of Rome. He will continue to write and to philosophise but he is expected to remain well below the radar. He will also take no active part in the process to elect his successor.

College of Cardinals

When he resigns the effective day-to-day running of the church will be taken over by the camerlengo (chamberlain) of the College of Cardinals, who happens to be the cardinal secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict’s trusted prime minister.

Aided by the dean of the College of Cardinals, former secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Cardinal Bertone will summon the cardinals worldwide to Rome for the papal election – a conclave.

In the case of the death of a pope the conclave must be held not earlier than 15 days after the pope’s death but no later than 20 days.

It is presumed that the camerlengo will follow that timetable, which would mean that the conclave will begin in mid-March.

Benedict’s successor could be chosen by the end of March in time for Easter celebrations.

The conclave will take place behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Only cardinals under the age of 80 are entitled to vote in an election that sees one vote on the opening day of the conclave and then two every day thereafter until such time as a new pope is chosen.

A two-thirds plus one majority is required to win the election. For the duration of the conclave all the cardinal electors will stay in Domus Santa Marta just inside the Vatican.

Following the most recent consistory last October, the Europe-non-Europe ratio in the ranks of elector cardinals is finely balanced, with 62 electors coming from Europe, 21 from Latin America, 14 from North America, 11 from Africa, 11 from Asia and one from Oceania. Italy continues to have the largest group of electors at 28 out of 120.

Paper ballot

The election will follow the age-old practice whereby the cardinal writes the name of the person chosen on the bottom half of a ballot paper.

As soon as the votes have been cast, the ballot papers are then burned, often with chemical additives, to produce either black smoke, if no pope has been elected, or white smoke if a pope has been chosen.

Rain and wind permitting, the smoke can be seen clearly from St Peter’s Square.