The process by which the next pope will be elected, known as the conclave, began Tuesday morning at about 11:30. Here are some key points you should know about:

  • The cardinals, 115 of them, gather inside the Sistine Chapel (above) at the Vatican and conduct the ceremony completely in private. The word "conclave" means "secret meeting," after all.
  • The highly democratic process, which has remained pretty much the same for 800 years, is designed to build consensus. Hence a simple majority of ballots is not enough; a candidate must receive a supermajority of at least two-thirds of the votes. That means that 77 of the 115 cardinals must agree on their next leader.
  • Votes are held twice a day, once in the morning and once in late afternoon, until there is a winner.
  • Each time a vote is held and then counted, the result is announced to the world via a smoke signal: black smoke means no candidate received the necessary two-thirds majority support, and white smoke means there is a new pope.
  • Not all cardinals can vote; only those under the age of 80 can.
  • If the process takes more than three days, the cardinals will take a day off from voting and dedicate it to prayer and discussion.
  • Once a pope is selected and white smoke rises from the chimney, a bell at the St. Peter's Basilica will ring and within the hour, the new pope will greet the world from the balcony after the announcement "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam!" which means "I announce to you with great joy we have a pope."
For a look at the top candidates to become the next pope, click here.

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