The papal succession is an important time of transition in the Roman Catholic Church. Here is a list of definitions and facts about the events now unfolding in Rome.
• College of Cardinals: A group of cardinals that provides for the election of the pope and that assists the pope in governing the universal church on matters of great importance. Only cardinals under age 80 are eligible to vote in papal elections. They are known as the cardinal electors, and their number is limited to 120.
• Conclave: The word has two meanings. It refers to the physical space where the cardinals meet to carry out the election of the new pope. Consistent with the word's Latin origin, cum clave, or “with a key,” the conclave has traditionally been a locked area to ensure the sequestration of the electors. The word “conclave” also has come to refer to the meeting of the cardinals at which a new pope is elected. Cardinals have met under an oath of secrecy to elect the each new leader of the Catholic Church since 1271.
• Sistine Chapel: Where the papal election takes place in total secrecy; it is the principal chapel of the Vatican Apostolic palace. It is famed for its frescoed walls by various artists, especially the ceiling and altar wall painted by Michelangelo.
• St. Peter's Square: Where pilgrims are expected to gather to greet the new pope. The square leads to St. Peter's Basilica, a major church in Vatican City in Rome. The basilica is considered one of the holiest sites in Christendom.
• Number of votes are necessary to elect a pope: A candidate must receive two-thirds of the vote to be elected. If no one has received the required two-thirds majority, the ballots are set aside, and a new vote begun immediately, with two votes each morning and two each afternoon until a new pope is elected.
• Custom of signaling the election of a pope with white smoke: At the end of each morning and afternoon session of the conclave, the ballots from the two votes are burned together in a furnace near the Sistine Chapel. In the past, wet straw was added to the ballots of an indecisive vote to produce black smoke; dry straw was added to the ballots of a successful vote to produce white smoke, signaling to the crowds in St. Peter's Square the outcome of the conclave's deliberations. In 1978 and 2005, a small vial of chemicals was substituted for the straw to produce the correctly colored smoke.
SOURCE: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; SacredDestinations.com