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Raleigh Monsignor Explains How A New Pope Will Be Selected

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St. Peter's Square
VATICAN CITY — Now that Pope John Paul II has died at the age of 84, what will happen next? Who will be the next pope? And how will he be selected?

WRAL-TV was given extensive access to the Vatican to answer these questions. And we learned that selecting a pope in today's world is the same process that has been used since the 1500s.

Monsignor Tim O'Connor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Raleigh explained this process.

Within 20 days of the pope's death, the College of Cardinals will gather in Vatican City to select the next pope, O'Connor said. Inside the Sistine Chapel -- under Michelangelo's canopy -- the 120 Cardinals begin their work in secret as crowds gather outside in St. Peter's Square.

"Several times during the day the cardinals come into this chapel and in the middle is a table with a big chalice where they will place their ballots of the name of one of them they believe God in their hearts is calling them to nominate as pope," O'Connor said.

The next pope will be one of the existing cardinals, who are all under the age of 80. More than likely, it will be one that was appointed during Pope John Paul's 24-year reign.

"They sit along the walls and what is created before conclave are little seats for the cardinals with a canopy that hangs above them so they're all lined up along here," O'Connor said.

A person has to receive at least two-thirds of the vote to be elected.

"If in that counting it's not a majority, then the ballots are taken out of the chapel and burnt," O'Connor said.

"And dirt is put in so that black smoke appears in St. Peter's square to let people know that no pope has been elected."

If the ballot comes back and someone has two-thirds of the vote, then the senior cardinal will walk over to that person and ask the cardinal, "Do you accept your election?"

Because all of this is done in secret , it is not know whether anyone has ever said no.

But O'Connor said if the cardinal says yes, "He's asked by what name do you wish to be called?

"So popes change their name just the way Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter," O'Connor said.

The newly-elected pope is then taken to a small room to change from his cardinal red cassock or robe into white clothing worn only by the pope.

There he has a chance to reflect before greeting the world as the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics.

"Because of knowing what he's just agreed to do with all the weight of the position," O'Connor said, "the room is known as the chapel of tears."

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