Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope to step down since 1294, so you probably have quite a few questions about what happens next. But it turns out the process the papal conclave will use to elect the next pope will be fairly familiar: With the exception of a period of mourning, the process will be the same as it would have been had the pope died. Details on what's to come, from the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, the Duck of Minerva, NBC News, and the AP:
- The conclave must begin between 15 and 20 days after the pope resigns. The cardinals eligible to vote—a group that does not include Pope Benedict himself, because the voters must be under age 80 and he is 85—are sequestered in the Sistine Chapel. They are searched for cell phones and pagers upon entering, and all connections to the outside world are removed.
- Two ballots are held each morning and two each afternoon; they are burned after each round. Black smoke signals that no decision has been reached, while white smoke and bells signal that a new pope has been chosen.
- It could take longer this time around than it did last time, since Pope Benedict reverted back to the rule requiring a two-thirds majority. Under Pope John Paul II, only a simple majority was needed if inconclusive voting continued for 12 days. If things stretch on too long, the Church could find itself leaderless at Easter. But traditionally, papal conclaves only last a few days; the longest one in the past two centuries was only five days.
- The United States will have a bigger part in the process than ever before, since almost 10% of the conclave will be American. That's thanks to Benedict, who named three new American cardinals last year, giving the US the second-largest voting bloc.
- The new pope looks over St. Peter's Square as he is introduced with the phrase, "Habemus Papam!" (Latin for, "We have a pope!") and gives his first blessing. As for the former pope, Benedict XVI will retain the title "Bishop of Rome Emeritus," but one expert says he doubts Benedict will use it.
Technically, the conclave can elect any baptized Roman Catholic male to be pope—but it will probably pick a cardinal, as it has done every time since 1378. Click to see the frontrunners