conclave of catholic bishops

What Happens Next at the Vatican

Andreas SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

White smoke at the Vatican in 2005, signaling the election of Cardinal Ratzinger. Andreas SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Following is a brief explanation of the process used in a conclave to elect a new pope.

Q: Who governs the church until a new pope is elected?

A: Day-to-day operations are handled by the Vatican curia, the central bureaucracy. All prelates who head Vatican agencies resign after the death or resignation of a pope. Provisions are made to oversee the papal household, the spiritual needs of Romans and to grant absolutions.

Q: What does the word “conclave” mean?

A: The word comes from the Latin, “with a key,” referring to the tradition of locking the doors until cardinals elect a winner.

Q: Who is eligible to be elected pope?

A: Technically, any baptized male Catholic is eligible, provided he is not married and in good standing with the church. Since 1378, however, new popes have come from within the College of Cardinals.