What happens when the Pope dies

If you’ve ever watched or read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons you’ve probably wondered what happens when a Pope dies.

Vatican City

Surprisingly Dan Brown seems to get a reasonable amount right when it comes to procedure around a Pope’s death. Be wary though, Dan Brown is known to be a bit flamboyant in his portrayal of fiction as fact, always best to do some extra research on his theories.

With all that said, there is indeed a lengthy and meticulous process the Vatican must go through upon the death of a Pope.

The Vatican is a very secretive and protected entity but there is a lot we do know about their procedure, so we thought we’d share some of it with you!

Immediately following death

There hasn’t been a papal death in 15 years at the time of writing, but the most recent death does teach us a lot about post-death ritual in the Vatican. When the Pope dies the first person to be notified is the camerlengo and he is responsible for the formal determination of death. Before he alerts the Church or the public of the death, he will stand over the papal body and call the Popes baptismal name out three times. Only when there is no response to the calls is the Pope pronounced dead.

From here the body remains mostly untouched. The Vatican forbids any autopsy from occurring on the man, which has led to some very interesting theories when Popes die unexpectedly. The death certificate can be written and the camerlengo seals the papal apartments.

The sealing of the apartments is not so much ritualistic as it is to prevent cardinals from looting them. Though not so much of a worry now, it used to be common practice for cardinals to raid the papal apartments and take what they liked. Today there is more concern that the Pope’s will may end up in the wrong hands.

Destroying the papal seal

If you’ve seen the movie, you’re probably wondering if this is when the Ring of the Fisherman is destroyed, and you’d be right, it is!

After the Pope has been pronounced dead the camerlengo takes the papal ring and cuts it with a pair of shears in the presence of other cardinals. There are several reasons why the ring is cut, however the most important is to prevents its use in the forging of documents. Additionally, cutting the ring also symbolizes the ending of the late Pope’s authority. No ring, no power.

Following the official determination of the Pope’s death, it’s time for the Vatican to share the news with the world.

Spreading the word

Officially, there is a long procedure that must be followed to share the news of a papal death. The camerlengo shares the news first with the vicar of Rome, the dean of the College of Cardinals (who share the news with the rest of the cardinal college), the ambassadors of the Holy See and the heads of nations. Previously, it was through the heads of nations, ambassadors and the vicar of Rome that the public would hear the news. Today though the public finds out much quicker, perhaps even before some officials, due to the 24-hour news cycle and the magic of social media.

A funeral for the Pope

No surprise here, there are many rules in place for the papal funerals. The funeral must take place between the fourth and sixth days after death, however, the Pope is celebrated for nine consecutive days following his death.

Interestingly, the Pope plans much of his funeral, leaving instructions for the camerlengo to execute.

How do we get a new Pope?

Whether a Pope dies or retires, the same process takes place to elect a new one.

Fifteen days after the death of the Pope, the College of Cardinals begin conclave.

What is conclave?

Conclave, meaning “with a key” in Latin, is the electoral process undertaken by the College of Cardinals to elect a new Pope. The cardinals are locked, with a key, into the Sistine Chapel with no access to the outside world. This is to prevent outside influence over the vote as well as a way to prevent campaigning by any one cardinal which is strictly forbidden.

All cardinals under the age of 80 when the Pope dies are eligible to vote in the conclave, even those that may have been excommunicated. Under Vatican law, it is their right to vote for the Pope.

On the first day of the conclave, the cardinals have Mass before heading into the Sistine Chapel where they take an oath to the apostolic constitution. At this time, they also take an oath against supporting any secular institutions that may try to prevent the election of a new Pope, always protecting their Catholic sovereignty.

How do the cardinals vote?

On the first day of the conclave, the cardinals may take their first vote. For any cardinal to be announced as the new Pope, they must receive at least two-thirds of the cardinal’s votes. The cardinals will continue to meet each day in the Sistine Chapel until this two-thirds vote is reached.

There is a significant ritual that takes place when both placing and counting the votes, however that could be an entire new blog itself! After each vote, the ballots and any notes relating to the vote are burnt, it is then that the public gets their first glimpse of what is happening inside the conclave.

Since 1903, the smoke from the burning ballots has alerted the public to if there is a new Pope. Black smoke means there has not been a two-thirds majority, and another vote will go ahead. White smoke and a new Pope has been elected.

As you can see the death of a Pope leads to so much more than just a funeral procession. The electing of a new Pope is something that happens once in a blue moon, but it is meticulously planned and perfectly executed.

Related article: How do they choose who will be Pope?

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