Conclave: What Happens When a Pope Dies

Normally a Pope is elected for life except on the rare occasions when a Pope retires. This recently happened in 2013 when Pope Benedict XVI resigned his post after nearly eight years in the job. He was also the first Pope to step down since Pope Gregory XII way back in 1415.

What happens when the Pope dies?

When a Pope dies it sets off a traditionally old fashioned and historic process. First, the camerlengo (the Pope’s Chief of Staff) calls out to the Pope using his birth name or baptismal name three times. If there is no response, the camerlengo will organize a death certificate and he will contact the cardinal vicar of the diocese of Rome. Angelo De Donatis has served in this role since 2017. The Pope is not declared dead until the camerlengo takes this action.

The camerlengo, who is currently the Irish-born Kevin Farrell, will then lock the Papal desk, lock the Pope’s private papal apartment and cut off all his telephone wires. Black smoke is then sent out through a chimney from a stove that is placed in the Sistine Chapel to allow the public to know that the Pope is dead. Before a new Pope is elected, there is a period of time called ‘Interregnum’ which is the period when there is no Pope. The funeral usually is four to six days after the Pope dies and this is all organized by the Camerlengo.


After a Pope dies, the event that the public will hear the most about is Conclave. Conclave is when the College of Cardinals meets to vote upon who becomes the next Pope. The word conclave is Latin translating to “with Key” as traditionally the cardinals were locked in until the decision is made with no contact from the outside world.

Before Conclave can start there is a period called novemdiales which is a nine-day period of mourning before the process to elect a new Pope begins. Since the year 1492, the Papal Conclave has taken place inside the Sistine Chapel. Traditionally, the cardinals were locked in for the duration of the voting. Today, they are housed in the Domus Sanctae Marthae – a kind of Papal hotel adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica – but they still cast their voting inside the Sistine Chapel.

There are now 120 cardinals altogether but this number has varied throughout history. In the Middle Ages, there were as few as seven cardinals who voted to elect the next Pope. For a Pope to be elected they must get two-thirds of the vote, and each cardinal’s vote has equal value.

The Sistine Chapel

The setting for Conclave is the Sistine Chapel, which was built between the years 1480 to 1482 under Pope Sixtus IV as the Pope’s private chapel as well as to serve as the new location for voting to elect a new Pope. Today the Sistine Chapel is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world. People flock to the Vatican Museums to see Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling telling the story of the Old Testament. Michelangelo Buonarroti also painted the wall behind the alter called the Last Judgment.


Why does the voting for a new Pope usually take so long? There are a number of reasons for this but it is mainly because the Cardinal that will become Pope must get two-thirds of the votes. If this is not achieved the process must take place again. Voting takes place twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. All votes are then burned. In the past to quicken the process the Cardinals would be only allowed one meal a day if the voting lasted longer than 3 days. If it lasted a further 5 days, the Cardinals were only allowed bread and water. This enforced fasting usually encouraged the Cardinals to come to an agreement as quickly as possible.

Black and White Smoke after a Pope Dies

When the Pope dies, a temporary stove and chimney are attached to the Sistine Chapel. The stove serves to burn the votes, but its smoke it meant to alert pilgrims on St. Peter’s Square when a new Pope is elected. Black smoke, or fumata nera, is sent out to inform the world that the Pope has died. The dead Pope’s ring, the Ring of the Fisherman, is also burned in the stove after it has been removed from the Pope’s finger and crushed by the camerlengo. After each failed vote (e.g. when no single Cardinal receives the two-thirds vote) black smoke is again sent out through the chimney.

When a Cardinal receives a two-thirds majority vote white smoke or fumata bianca is sent out to inform the world that we have a new Pope.

What happens after a new Pope is chosen?

Once a new Pope is elected he is asked by the Cardinal Dean “Acceptasne electionem de te canoice factem in summum pontificem?” Meaning do you accept the position of becoming the next Pope.

He is then asked “Quo nomine vis vocari?” To which the Pope answers what name he will take as the new Pope.

The Pope then goes to the Room of Tears. This is located through the door on the bottom left-hand side of The Last Judgement inside the Sistine Chapel. Here the Pope is expected to become so overwhelmed with emotion that he will start to cry, therefore the name The Room of the Tears. This is also where he will dress before getting ready to greet the world on the famous balcony on St. Peter’s Basilica looking out onto over 100,000 people spilling out of St. Peter’s Square.

The senior Cardinal Deacon or cardinal Protodeacon appears first to declare: “I announce with great joy, we have a new Pope.”

Photo by Nacho Arteaga on Unsplash