THE shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI sets in motion the selection of a successor to lead the world’s one billion Catholics – a tradition that dates back almost 1,000 years.
It is the duty of 120 cardinals to decide who will next lead the Roman Catholic Church, with the College of Cardinals meeting in Rome to hold an election.
Since 1059, the selection of the next head of the Church has been reserved to the college, who are themselves appointed by the Pope.
Cardinals, aged under 80 and from all over the world, are expected to vote in late March.
The college becomes immediately responsible for the day-to-day running of the church, as Vatican offices will be suspended when Benedict stands down on 28 February, although it is forbidden to take any decisions that would normally be reserved for the Pope.
The cardinals’ coming together is known as the conclave – from the Latin cum clave, meaning “with a key” in reference to them being locked in the Apostolic Palace until they produce a result.
Under regulations introduced in 1996, the cardinals will be housed in a building inside the Vatican’s walls called the Domus Sanctae Marthae , or St Martha’s House.
They will move from there to the Papal Palace and the Sistine Chapel for the actual voting beneath Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment.
Throughout the process they are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to speak to anyone not involved in the election. Any breaches could result in their excommunication.
The 1996 voting rules now allow for just one method of selection, by two-thirds majority. It replaced the traditions either of cardinals agreeing to one name without prior arrangement or by compromise.
The first vote is held on the afternoon of the first day if possible and there are then two ballots each morning and each afternoon thereafter until a result is declared.
Ballots are burned after each round. Black smoke means no decision; white smoke signals that cardinals have chosen a pope and he has accepted.