BENEDICT XVI’S resignation has triggered a centuries-old process of electing a new Pope.
The College of Cardinals, the Roman Catholic Church’s most senior officials, will elect his successor at a session known as a Conclave.
Some 117 cardinals, 67 of them elected by the current pontiff and all of them under 80, will be eligible to take part in the ballot inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
During the election, which involves secret voting, none of the cardinals is permitted any contact with the outside world and must swear an oath of secrecy.
The process, which can last days, is designed to prevent any details of the vote emerging, with anyone tempted to break this rule threatened with excommunication.
To emerge victorious, candidates need to ensure a majority of two-thirds plus one, meaning Popes are likely to be compromise candidates.
The cardinals have the option of holding a single ballot on the afternoon of the first ballot and then two in the morning and two in the afternoon from the second day.
If, after three days of voting, no candidate has won a majority, the ballot process is suspended for a maximum of one day to allow a pause for prayer, informal discussion and a ‘brief spiritual exhortation’.
The only clue about what is happening in the chapel is the smoke that emerges twice daily from the burning ballot papers. Black signals failure but the traditional white smoke indicates a new pontiff has been chosen.
The victor is announced from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica with the words: “I announce to you a great joy – we have a Pope.”