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Conclave, cardinals, ballots — What happens next at the Vatican?

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Q: When does the conclave begin?

A: The 1996 guidelines call for the conclave to begin 15 to 20 days after the pope’s death, or when the papal throne is decreed as vacant. Benedict has said he will resign Feb. 28.

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Q: Is the conclave open to the public?

A: No. The voting is conducted behind closed doors under the tightest security. The conclave is closed to allow the cardinals to cast their votes without outside influence or pressure. Anyone associated with the conclave must take a vow of secrecy.

Q: Where is the conclave held?

A: Voting is held inside the Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. Cardinals will stay in the Casa Santa Marta, a $20 million hotel-style residence inside the Vatican walls built by Pope John Paul II. Cardinals may not leave the Vatican grounds until a conclave concludes.

Q: What are the factors likely to influence the voting?

A: Officially, the church says only the Holy Spirit will influence the results. But church watchers say a new pope will win based on several criteria: age, nationality, life experience, personality and positions on major issues facing the church.

Q: Who are the front-runners?

A: It’s difficult to tell. The turmoil in the Vatican Curia under Benedict might lead cardinals to look for a younger pope who has shown administrative capacity as well as theological acumen; they might also look for someone with an easier touch with the masses and the media, and who is able to speak for the majority of Catholics who are based in Latin America and Africa.

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But a large part of the voting cardinals have a long experience at the Vatican and might look for one of their own to lead the church. As in the case of Benedict’s election, traditional liberal/conservative labels are not useful. The old maxim usually applies: "He who goes in papabile [a candidate for pope] comes out as a cardinal."

Q: Could an American be elected pope?

A: Technically, yes, and for probably the first time in history, an American — New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan — is considered a strong candidate. But it remains to be seen if cardinals will want to overcome an old taboo and pick the world’s most visible religious leader from the world’s lone superpower.

Q: Are overt campaigning or backroom deals allowed?

A: After the death or resignation of a pope, discussions before the conclave are expected, but campaigning is discouraged. Paper ballots are cast in silence, leaving discussions and arguments to be held outside the Sistine Chapel. Alliances are natural, but cardinals are forbidden to buy votes or make deals.

Q: When does the voting occur?

A: The first ballot may be held on the first afternoon of the conclave after morning Mass. There are then two ballots in the morning and two ballots in the afternoon until a pope is elected.

Q: How long does the voting continue?

A: Ballots are cast until a winner receives the necessary two-thirds majority. After three days of unsuccessful balloting, cardinals take a break and resume after a short spiritual talk. Voting then continues for another seven votes, followed by another break, and an additional round of seven votes. After about 30 ballots or about 12 days, cardinals will have to vote between the two candidates who have received the most votes in the last ballot.

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