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Pope John Paul II has reigned for more than 23 years, more than double the average and the sixth longest reign in history. When a pope's reign ends, one of the most distinct processes of succession in the world begins.
When the pope dies, the college of cardinals, a group of the church's highest ranking clergy, are called to Rome for a papal election. Technically, any Catholic man can be elected, but historically the pool of candidates has been limited to the cardinals.
The process is called a conclave which literally means "locked with a key," a word coined in the days when the cardinals were locked in a room, until they made a decision.
To insure secrecy during the entire conclave, and to avoid outside pressure, temporary quarters for the cardinals have to be built all over the Vatican palace, library and museums.
Balloting takes place only in the Sistine Chapel. After they have been tallied, the ballots are burned in a small stove. The chimney from the stove can be seen from St. Peter's square. It is the color of the smoke that onlookers will try to discern: black means a failed ballot, while white means a new pope has been chosen.
Meanwhile, inside the conclave, in an odd mix of spiritual devotion and pragmatism, the cardinals must make a decision that will determine the course of the church for perhaps the next decade or more.
And what of the man who is eventually chosen?
The newly elected pontiff must then literally walk out of the college of cardinals. He heads toward the altar of the Sistine Chapel, toward a room where the white papal robes await.
It has been given the title the Room of Tears, which gives the impression that maybe a certain amount of emotion and emotional weeping takes place before the man actually emerges now dressed as the new pope.
Moments later, the great glass doors of the central balcony of St. Peter's are opened and the cardinals emerge to make their announcement.
Inside the Vatican: Front Page
St. Peter's Basilica
The Swiss Guards
The Pope's Day
The World's Most Beautiful Stuff
The Holy See
Electing a New Pope
The Secret Archives
The Making of Inside the Vatican
Kids Activity Guide
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