Canon Law makes provision for the resignation of a Pope. However, that has not happened since 1415 and all successive Pontiffs have died in office.

Canon 332§2 of the Code of Canon Law states: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”

However, there is no further elaboration on the subject in the Code of Canons and it is quite likely that the Pope will promulgate such a law before he steps down on 28 February, sources close to The Vatican told The Hindu.

When he has stepped down, Pope Benedict XVI will revert to his former name Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger and will no longer be addressed as His Holiness. The Vatican has announced that he will not participate in the Conclave of Cardinals that will name his successor.

The Conclave of Cardinals meets in the famous Sistine Chapel under a frescoed ceiling painted by Michelangelo, depicting Man’s fall from the Garden of Eden and The Last Judgement.

There are 209 cardinals in all but only 118 of these are allowed to vote. Cardinals aged 80 years and above are not allowed to vote.

The voting system was first established in 1059. The system has become increasingly complicated over the centuries and voting for oneself was outlawed in 1621.

Election in March

The next conclave will take place at the end of March, probably during Holy Week which ends on Easter Sunday on March 31.

The cardinals are housed in private rooms in what is known as the House of Santa Maria and are cut off from the outside world during the electoral process. There can be several rounds of voting and the used ballots are burnt in the chimney.

When the result is inconclusive the ballots are burnt with damp straw, helped along by chemicals to emit a thick dark smoke.

When a Pope is finally selected, the ballots that are burnt send up a distinctive white smoke from the chimney which announces to the world that a new Pope has been chosen.

There is tremendous speculation on the name of the next Pope.

Europe is in a favoured position with a total of 115 Cardinals. Latin America comes next with 30 cardinals (Brazil has nine and Mexico has four).

Asia has 20 cardinals — India leads with seven followed by the Philippines with three. Africa has 18 cardinals whereas the United States has 19 and Canada three.

The Australia-New Zealand region boasts a total of four cardinals.

Most Popes have been Italian and there is speculation on whether the office will return to Italy. Latin American church officials as well as cardinals from Africa are pushing hard for a non European Pope since it is in Africa and the emerging economies that Catholicism is growing the fastest.

The odds appear to be stacked in Italy’s favour — Europe will be reluctant to let go of its hold over the Papal office — and after two non-Italian Popes, many in the Vatican feel the next Bishop of Rome should in fact come from Rome or somewhere close by.

In order to be elected Pope a Cardinal must receive two-thirds plus one vote from the Conclave. After the cardinal deacon announces “Habemus Papam” to the crowds outside — Latin for “We have a pope”, the new Pontiff appears on the balcony of the Vatican to give his first message to the world.

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