|Keys to the kingdom...|
In fact, the decisionmaking (known as the conclave) begins today. Here're some facts about the whole process.
The conclave (meaning "with a key" in Latin) started in the C13th., when the Church had two separate patches of a few years without a pope. Fed up with this, in 1243 the people of Rome locked up the cardinals until they'd decided on a successor. Again in 1271, people tore the roof off the building where the cardinals were meeting and put them on a bread-and-water diet, hoping the discomfort would speed things up.
Modern and ancient:
While the original reason was to force a decision, now the silence in the Sistine Chapel is to allow Da Boys In Red time for quiet reflection and prayer to hear the Holy Spirit, which is supposed to reveal God's choice for the next pope. Today the church forbids cellphones, internet, newspapers and other mod comms in the conclave, and sweeps the joint for electronic bugs prior its start. When Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, the Vatican raised the floor of the Sistine Chapel to install electronic jamming gear, just in case...
|Vatican: Papal Party Central...|
During the conclave, cardinals vote for Mr.New Pope over and over until they reach a decision. For outsiders watching, the smoke from the Vatican's chimney will be their only clue. Black smoke means a deadlock. White smoke means 'break out the dancing nuns': two-thirds of the cardinals agree. Historically, to make black smoke, damp straw was added to the fire. But the sealing wax on the ballots also affected the colour of the smoke so, when they did away with the sealing wax ballots in the 1950s, the smoke signals were confusing. Now the Church adds chemical colourants to the smoke.
Who can be pope?
In theory, any baptized male Catholic can rise to the highest office (yes, even ME, the longest-serving altar boy in my parish!), but in reality the front-runners are almost all cardinals. Once chosen, the pope picks a new name, signalling his allegiance to a specific theology or set of priorities. He can technically pick whatever name he wants...though Pope Bieber may not go down too well!
Once the pope's chosen, he is 'it' effective immediately, no time to prep a fancy speech or plan lunch. To make sure he's ready-to-roll straight out onto the Vatican balcony and greet the masses, the church has several white robes in multiple sizes waiting. The pope used to don an all-red outfit, until Pius V changed that to white in 1566. The last traces of that are the pope's red shoes, cap and cape.
The new pope won't have much time to kick back and relax. Holy Week and Easter (the most important time on the Catholic calendar) is just a few weeks away. He'll also face several big issues: dealing directly with sex abuse scandals, solving the priest shortage, and energizing the church's dwindling flock in Europe and US. Those sex scandals are still simmering, plus there's a secret report recently given to Benedict XVI, identifying members of his inner circle who leaked confidential church documents to the media. The next leader will read that 2,000-page missif and no doubt do some housecleaning, so there'll be no honeymoon period.
Mr.New Pope will have to be Energizer Bunny from the minute the white smoke has cleared.