How to Become Pope Without Even Trying


Every so often, the Roman Catholic Church has to choose a new Pope. It’s a big deal when that happens, capturing the attention of millions of people (even non-Catholics) around the world. The meeting, called a “papal conclave,” has a procedure which has been around for centuries. The College of Cardinals — currently made up of the 199 cardinals of the Church around the world — meet at the Vatican in a locked session, separating themselves from the rest of the world until the new Pope is elected. Each morning during the conclave the cardinals meet and cast secret ballots in support of a fellow male, baptized Catholic. (The candidate need not be a cardinal but typically is.) The ballots are then tabulated and burned. If two-thirds plus one of the ballots all read the same name, that cardinal becomes the new Pope. If not, the process repeats that afternoon, and if no decision is reached then, the process repeats the next day. This keeps on going until someone reaches the needed number of votes to become Pope.In recent elections, according to, the conclave has been preceded by a series of informal conversations among the cardinals — think of this as a way to gauge the electorate’s take on the potential candidates. But that wasn’t always the case. Hundreds of years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for cardinals to waste their first ballot by putting down the name of someone they didn’t want to be Pope, hoping instead to hear the names of the other voters, thereby determining which way the conclave was leaning. That strategy, of course, falls apart when everyone does it, which is why it’s likely gone the wayside. But with 199 members of the College of Cardinals, other than wasting time, it’s not a big problem — the odds that 132 of them could randomly put down the same name is astronomical.

But in the year 1334, there weren’t 199 voters. There were only sixteen members of the College of Cardinals.

On December 20th of that year, the sixteen of them met to elect a new pope. A French cardinal named Jacques Fournier seemed like a safe choice for those who wanted to see which way others were leaning — as the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia states, Fournier was “lightly regarded because of his obscure origin and lack of wealth and following” and had little chance of securing election. Unfortunately, the “Fournier is a throw-away vote” wisdom proved widespread and, ultimately, wrong. At least eleven of the voters put down Fournier’s name, unintentionally electing him to the papacy. And the rules were inflexible — the are no do-overs when selecting a new Pope. A month later, Fournier was installed as Pope Benedict XII.

Despite the cloud around the election, the papacy of Benedict XII was not a disaster. Wikipedia calls him a “reforming pope” who worked toward peaceful relations with some of the Church’s adversaries, and the New Advent Encyclopedia entry linked above called him “one of the few men of real merit in the college.” He spent most of his eight-plus years a Pope focusing on theology and died in 1342. His successor, Pope Clement VI, was not elected accidentally.

AnchorBonus Fact: To announce whether the papal conclave has reached a decision, the College of Cardinals burns the ballots and releases the smoke from out the smokestack, as seen above. The color of the smoke — black for no, white for yes, as seen above — tells the story. The white smoke/black smoke indicator has been used by the College of Cardinals for about a century, but it hasn’t always been foolproof. In 1958, for example, the smoke came out white during an early vote, triggering loud applause and reports that a decision had been reached — only to turn black as more smoke came out of the stack.Over the years, the Vatican has developed new ways to cut down on the ambiguity. In 2013, per Mental Floss, the Church described the process: a “smoke device” where “different colored-smoke generating compounds can be mixed.” The black smoke is made from “potassium perchlorate (an inorganic salt commonly used as an oxidizer in colored fireworks and other pyrotechnics), anthracene (a hyrocarbon component of coal tar) and sulfur.” The white is made of “potassium chlorate (a similar compound to potassium perchlorate, used in fireworks and smoke bombs), lactose (the sugar found in cow’s milk) and rosin (a conifer resin).”

Take the Quiz: Pope or Nope? Is the name given the name of a pope?

From the Archives: Mozart versus the Pope: When the church got mad at Mozart.

Related: “The Vatican: Secrets and Treasures of the Holy City” by Michael Collins. 4.8 stars on 33 reviews.