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What is a papal conclave?

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The papal conclave is the gathering of the College of Cardinals to choose a new Pope for the Roman Catholic Church. The College of Cardinals is the collective body of all cardinals around the world. In order to prevent political interference, deadlocks, and intrigue, qualifying cardinals are secluded in an area of the Vatican consisting of the Sistine Chapel (where the voting takes place) and dormitory-style housing. The cardinals are to remain until a new Pope is chosen. If a cardinal leaves for other than health reasons, he is not allowed re-entry.

The procedure for the papal conclave is fairly basic. After hearing sermons on the state of the Roman Catholic Church and the rules of the conclave, the cardinals vote up to four times a day with secret ballots. The ballots are counted, read, recorded, and burned. A Pope must be chosen by two-thirds vote. If the count does not result in an election, chemicals are added to the burning ballots to turn the smoke dark; if it does result in an election, the smoke is colored white and bells ring. Every three days or seven votes, the conclave takes a break for prayer and contemplation.

Devout Catholics gather in St. Peter’s Square to watch the chimney on the Sistine Chapel. When the smoke turns white, the Pope-elect takes a vow of office and dons the papal vestments. He then greets the people in the square from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

It is tradition that the office of Pope is not campaigned for. Any baptized male Catholic can be elected Pope, although the last non-priest elected was Leo X in 1513, and every Pope since then has been chosen from among the cardinals. Any who do not wish to be considered make their wishes known beforehand. The office is considered to be a lifetime appointment. Pope Benedict XVI was the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.

Is the idea and procedure of the papal conclave biblical? No, it is not. Since the office of Pope is itself unbiblical, the Roman Catholic procedure of selecting a new Pope is also unbiblical. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church (Colossians 1:18). The Holy Spirit is the true “Vicar of Christ” (John 14:16-18, 26; 16:13).

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What is a papal conclave?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022