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What's next: How a pope is chosen

  • Pope Benedict XVI has resigned
  • He stepped down from his duties February 28
What's next: How a pope is chosen

Pope Benedict XVI resigned from his post Feb. 28, saying that he's "no longer suited for the job" due to his advanced age. He is 85 years old.

Papal resignations, of course, don't happen every day: The last time a pope resigned was 600 years ago. Most, including the previous pope -- Pope John Paul II -- stay in office until they die. Since it's been a while, you may be wondering exactly how the Catholic Church goes about choosing a successor. No shocker here: It's something of a complex process.

The pope is typically chosen by election. Here's the way it usually works: After a pope's death (or in this case, his resignation), there's a brief period called an "Interregnum" that could last up to 15 days. Then, the College of Cardinals meets in the Sistine Chapel for a gathering called the papal conclave. The papal conclave is held after a votive mass called "Pro Eligendo Papa." After drawing lots to select three members to act as tellers, the cardinals will use handwritten ballots to cast their votes. If there is no winner on the first day of the conclave, the cardinals return the next day -- and the next. They vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon until a new pope is chosen.

Read more: Facts about Pope Benedict XVI

One of the most memorable parts of the process takes place after each voting session. The cardinals will burn the ballots and send a signal to the world by the color of the smoke. Black means a decision has not been made, and white means a new pope has been chosen. Bells from St. Peter's will ring the first time the white smoke appears. After that, between 30 minutes and an hour can pass before the new pope appears on the main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. When a cardinal says "Habemus Papam," he is about to announce the name of the church's new leader.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said that a new pope will likely be elected by Easter.

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