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Conclave, cardinals, ballots — What happens next at the Vatican?
First Published Feb 11 2013 11:06 am • Last Updated Feb 22 2013 11:32 am

Here are brief explanations of the process used in a conclave to elect a new pope.

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

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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.

Q: Who sets the rules for how a pope is elected?

A: A 1996 document by Pope John Paul II, "Universi Dominici Gregis," lays out the framework for the conclave. Pope Benedict XVI amended it in 2007, abolishing a norm that allowed a pope to be elected with an absolute majority instead of a two-thirds majority in case of an impasse. Other details and traditions have evolved over time.

Q: What language is used in a conclave?

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A: Traditionally, Latin has been the lingua franca of the church. However, with a global church, Latin has fallen away. While some details already call for Latin — "extra omnes!" (all out!) is used to shoo everyone out of the Sistine Chapel — others will likely be replaced by Italian, Spanish and English or any of those languages.

Q: Does a conclave ever convene for any other reason?

A: No. Any pope can call together cardinals for advice or any other purpose, but a conclave is only used to elect a pope.

Q: Who may participate in a conclave?

A: As of Nov. 24, 2012, there are 118 cardinals who are under age 80 and thus eligible to participate in the conclave. Older retired cardinals may participate in discussions leading up to the conclave but may not vote.

Q: Are women or lay people involved?

A: Outside of cooks or housekeepers, no. Only cardinals — who by definition are male priests — may participate.

Q: Who are the Americans who will participate?

A: There are 11 American cardinals who are eligible to participate. Five of the cardinals head archdioceses — New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston, Houston; three hold positions in Rome and three are retired. Eight other American cardinals are too old to vote.

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