First off, let's just say it: the idea that popes are elected may seem unremarkable in this age of widespread democracy, but we should in fact be at least a little surprised by it. After all, the Pope is a monarch, in many ways -- even most -- a Renaissance prince. But of course, even in those bad old undemocratic Middle Ages, the Church was one place where leaders, including some of the most powerful ones, were chosen by a vote of their peers. Long after the days when a bishop might be chosen by popular acclamation, abbots, abbesses and popes were elected, and of course they still are. In other words, democracy -- of a limited sort -- has always had an important place in Christian churches.
Universi Dominici Gregis. The Fisheaters website provides a useful one-page summary, particularly including the prayers. Here is our own quick guide; please let us know if we have omitted anything essential.
1. Make sure the Pope is dead. Or at least that he has resigned. How do you make sure a pope is dead? Traditionally, you hit him on the head with a silver hammer and ask, "Are you dead?" Then you steal his jewelry. (Well, the Fisherman's Ring, anyway. They break it, along with his official seal, and put them both in the coffin. There are lots of other funeral customs, which -- God willing -- will not be necessary this time around.)
2. Assemble the cardinals. You have twenty days to do this. All cardinals are eligible to participate in the discussions leading to the conclave proper, but only the 117 under the age of 80 have a vote. (This number may drop to 114, depending on the precise date that the conclave begins.) The number of electors is capped at 120 in any case. The Court Chamberlain, usually called by his Italian title of Camerlengo, has already been running things since the Pope died or abdicated
3. Lock them into a big room. Seriously. It's the Sistine Chapel, so at least they have something to look at if they get bored. They come in together, singing Veni Creator Spiritus. They take an oath, both of secrecy and of independence from external control. Then the order is given -- Extra omnes! -- and all non-essential personnel vacate the premises. The place has already been swept for bugs; telephones and radios are forbidden; electors may not watch television, even back in their rooms.
4. Pray, and then start voting.
A. The first phase of voting is the Pre-Scrutiny. They elect 9 officers, of three types -- Scrutineers, who count the votes; Infirmarii, who collect votes from sick electors; and Revisers, who double-check the work of the Scrutineers.
B. The second phase is the Scrutiny proper. Each elector is given a few sheets of paper, printed with the words "Eligo in Summum Pontificem." Under that, there is space to write a name; the idea is to disguise your handwriting, fold the paper twice, then carry it to the altar and place it into a covered urn, swearing before God that the name written is the person he believes should be elected. (Infirmarrii go to the rooms of electors who are medically unable to be present in the chapel.)
C. The third phase is the Post-Scrutiny. Scrutineers open the ballots and read them aloud, recording the votes. Revisers double-check, and the ballots (along with any other written notes taken by electors) are burned.
D. This process continues, two ballots at a time, until one person has received 2/3 of the votes.5. After three days, take a break. (Even Jesus was only good for three days in Hell). They can take up to one day for "prayer, informal discussion and an exhortation." Voting resumes, and if there is still no election after seven more ballots, they can take another break, and cast another seven ballots.
6. Change the rules. If, after something like 21 ballots (are we counting correctly?), there is still no election, the rules change. An absolute majority, but not 2/3, is now required. It is possible, if the majority agrees, to limit the voting to the two names that received the greatest number of votes on the preceding ballot. [UPDATE: In 2007, Benedict amended Universi Dominici Gregis, so that a valid election requires 2/3 at all time. A simple majority will not do it. Sorry for any confusion!]
7. Elect the guy. Get his consent. (He can refuse, but this is rare.) Then find out what he wants to be called. Then, if he is not a bishop, ordain him bishop. Then, and only then, announce his name to the crowd. Habemus papem! Technically, btw, we -- or at any rate they -- had a pope the moment he said yes, if he was a bishop, and the moment he was ordained, if not.
The rules are designed to emphasize fair play, honesty and, above all, the secrecy of the process. But there is one curious exception. The Camerlengo is instructed to write a report of each ballot, all of which are collected and sealed in an envelope which can only be opened by the permission of the Pope himself.