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An Oxford Companion to the 2013 Papal Elections

By Kimberly Hernandez

Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI retired from his papal duties with the intention to lead a life of prayer in seclusion. His sudden abdication has left many of the faithful wondering who will step in as his successor. While there are rumors that the next Pope may be from Latin America or Africa, the exact process of how a Pope is chosen is still shrouded in mystery. With the help of OUP’s resources, I hope to help answer the questions of those whose curiosity in Papal elections and history was sparked by the recent turn of events.


To better understand the how the modern Papacy came about, it’s good to explore how it has evolved from its earlier years to recent times. Here are some helpful resources that go into greater detail on Papal history:


While the lives of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been well documented, how much is known of the modern popes that came before them? Here’s a rundown of the 20th Century popes who influenced the Papacy as we know it today:

St. Pius X: The son of a seamstress and a village postman, Pius X wasn’t the first choice to succeed Leo XIII. An imperial veto from Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria forced the cardinals to go into another round of voting in protest of the Emperor’s involvement. Pius X was eventually chosen because the cardinals preferred a successor who would take the Papacy in a different direction from his predecessor. He was renowned for his more traditional take on Catholicism, his reforms on Canon Law, and his major reforms within the church. Pius X remained in office until his death in 1914 and was canonized in 1954.

Benedict XV: He was the son of a poor but aristocratic family who earned doctorates in theology and canon law. His later training in papal diplomatic service made him a successful candidate to succeed Pius X. He is remembered for his pontificate occurring during the First World War, having the Vatican remain neutral during that time, and ending the feud between traditionalists and modernists. He remained in office until his death in 1922.

Pius XI: The son of a silk factory manager, he was elected as Pope after a long and difficult election process. He is most remembered for the Lateran Pacts (1929), where the Vatican came to be recognized as a neutral, independent state. Other achievements during his time as pope include his involvement with missions, consecrating the first Chinese bishops, and modernizing the Vatican Library. He remained in office until his death in 1939.

Pius XII: As the son of a lawyer with ties to the Vatican, he was inspired early on to pursue the priesthood. He succeeded Pius XI after a short election because he was one of the most influential cardinals at the time and because of his extensive experience in foreign policy and relations. He is known for heavily promoting peace before the onset of World War II. During the war he was known for his neutrality and for making the Vatican an asylum for refugees during Hitler’s occupation of Rome. His dedication to peace and neutrality helped raise the number of dioceses to 2,048 by the time of his death. He remained in office until his death in 1958.

John XXIII: Born in a small village, he served as an ambassador (called a nuncio) with his diplomatic missions to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. He was elected Pope after a three day election, mainly due to the fact that many Cardinals believed his advanced age would lead to a short papacy. He is famous for calling together the Second Vatican Council in order to revive and update the teachings and organization of the church. He remained in office until his death in 1963.

Paul VI: The often ill son of a lawyer and newspaper editor, Paul pursued his early theological studies from his home. He was his predecessor’s confidant and played an important role in helping to bring about the Second Vatican Council. Due to his close relationship with John XXIII, he was viewed as the next likely successor and was elected Pope after six ballots. As he promised his predecessor, he continued the Second Vatican Council and dedicated himself to implementing the changes in canon law brought about by the council. He is well-known for traveling with the nickname the “pilgrim pope” and for declaring St Teresa of Avila (1515–82) and St Catherine of Siena (1347–80) the first women doctors of the church. He remained in office until his death in 1978.

John Paul I: From a working class family with socialist ties, he was appointed the bishop of Vittorio Venetoby by his predecessor in 1958. He became an active and eminent  member of Italian Conference of Bishops before being elected pope. After a short round of ballots in 1978, he was chosen as the new pope mainly out of the desire for a new style of leadership. He is most remembered for his short papacy.


You’ve heard it countless times on the news; Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope in about 600 years to resign. But who were the previous popes who made the same decision and what were their reasons for leaving office? Here are a few notable popes who either chose or were coerced into retirement:

St. Silverius: This pope’s papacy was plagued by political intrigue and he was forced to abdicate after accusations of being pro-Goth. While he was later given the chance for a fair trial, he was exiled again by his successor Vigilius.

John XVIII: Little is known about his time in office, but it is speculated that his Papacy was a result of the influence of John II Crescentius. It is known that he died at a monastery after possibly resigning as pope. The reasons behind his resignation are still up to speculation, but some believe his falling out of favor with John II Crescentius may have been one of the reasons.

Celestine V: Elected as pope in 1294 after much persuasion because of his hesitance to take on the role. He chose to abdicate after five months because of his unwillingness to act as a puppet under the control of Charles II of Sicily.

For more information on papal resignations, you can read last week’s Papal resignations through the years.


Along with the ceremony of  the papal elections themselves, the leading candidates are still a matter of speculation. Business Insider has compiled a helpful list of the rumored front runners for the upcoming election:

Cardinal Marc Ouellet
Where is he from: Canada
Possibility of Election: He’s the current Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and has extensive experience in missionary work. He’s also known to be fluent in six languages.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson
Where is he from: Ghana
Possibility of Election: He is the current President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He also has the reputation of being a good public speaker and he represents the global presence of Catholicism.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri
Where is he from: Argentina
Possibility of Election: Currently the President of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and is said to speak five languages. He is also rumored to have influential friends in the Curia.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi
Where is he from: Italy
Possibility of Election: Current President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and a well-respected man within the church.


The most commonly known aspect of the election process is the smoke signal, black smoke to indicate that the cardinals are still undecided and white to indicate that a choice has been made. But what occurs just before the smoke signal? What is the election process like? CNN’s Bruce Schneier gives us the step by step process of how popes are elected:

I.      In the first phase of voting, cardinals are given paper ballots to write their choices on. After the ballots are handed out, nine of the cardinals are chosen as election officials that are divided into three groups: the group who counts the votes, the group who checks the ballot results, and the group who collects the votes from cardinals who could not be present. After the election officials are chosen, the cardinals all cast their votes.

II.     The second phase involves each cardinal individually placing their ballots into a chalice. The third group also adds in the votes of the cardinals who could not be present. After all the cardinals have placed their ballots in the chalice, the group who counts the votes begins their work. The first official shakes the chalice and then the three officials count the ballots while passing them into a second chalice. The third official reads the names aloud while all three officials keep a tally of the names chosen.

III.   The final phase involves the ballot counters tallying up all the candidates from the second phase. After their work is done, the group who checks the ballot results go over the entire process and the results. After ensuring that the election process was fair, they burn the ballots. Depending on their findings, the election will conclude with a new pope or the election process will start over again.


If you crave even more information on all things Papal, here are a few more resources to look into:

Kimberly Hernandez is a social media intern at Oxford University Press.

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Image Credit: (1) St. Peter’s and the Vatican, Rome. Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. Source: NYPL Digital Gallery.
(2) Pope Benedict XVI during general audition, 2007. Photo by Tadeusz Górny. Released into the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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