The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is effective Feb. 28 and the conclave that will choose a new pope is expected in mid-March.
All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where cardinals cast ballots to elect a new pope. As per tradition, the ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke that snakes out of the chimney means no pope has been chosen, while white smoke means a pope has been elected.
Contenders to be his successor include:
--Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan.
--Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna.
--Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
--Longshots include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Although Dolan is popular and backs the pope's conservative line, the general thinking is that the Catholic Church doesn't need a pope from a "superpower."
Dolan says electing a new pope is all new to him since he's still learning what it means to be archbishop.
At a news conference Monday, Dolan quipped he was "still writing thank-you notes from when I was made a cardinal" last year.
He was responding to questions about Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he would resign Feb. 28 because he's simply too infirm to carry on. He would be the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years.
READ | Pope's declaration of resignation - http://tinyurl.com/arpknrn
As cardinal, Dolan would be part of the College of Cardinals electing a new pope.
In replying to questions, he said it would be "highly improbable" for him to be considered for the papacy. But joking with a reporter, he asked, "Is that why you're kneeling?"
--Given half of the world's Catholics live in the global south, there will once again be arguments for a pope to come from the developing world, so two other contenders to consider are: Cardinal Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, and Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana
Tagle has impressed many Vatican watchers, but at 56 and having only been named a cardinal last year, he is considered too young. Turkson is one of the highest-ranking African cardinals at the Vatican, currently heading the Vatican's office for justice and peace, but he's something of a wild card.
Some papal history
Pope Benedict XVI is the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to resolve a dispute over who should lead the Catholic Church.
---- The resignation of a modern pope is "new territory," said Norman Housley, professor of history at the University of Leicester in central England. "It's astonishing. It is ground-breaking."
---- Gregory XII was born Angelo Corrario in Venice in about 1327 to a noble family, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. His resignation led to the end of the Western Schism, which arose after two popes were elected in 1378, with one sitting in Avignon, France, and the other in Rome.
---- Gregory was elected the pope of Rome in 1406 with the understanding that he would quickly resign if the pope of Avignon, Benedict XIII, would do the same. After a decade of negotiation and maneuvering, in which a third pope was elected, Gregory finally stepped down and became a bishop. When Benedict refused to resign, he was excommunicated, and Martin V was elected in 1417 as the sole pope.
---- "At the end of the schism, they cleared the decks by getting rid of all three popes and having a fresh election of Martin V," Housley said.
---- The Avignon Papacy came about in 1309 after Clement V, a Frenchman, was elected pope and refused to move to Rome. Under Clement and his successors, the papacy had a reputation for lavish spending, nepotism and corruption.
---- Because Gregory XII's resignation was part of a brokered settlement, a more appropriate comparison to Benedict's situation might be Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294, Housely said. Celestine was a hermit when he was elected pope and he quickly quit to return to solitude after "he found the office too onerous," he said.
---- Since Gregory, there hasn't been a doctrinal reason for a pope to step down, and until Benedict, illness hasn't prevented a pope from serving out his duties, Housley said.
It's a complex sequence of events to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The laws governing the selection are the same as those in force after a papal death. Here is the procedure:
---- The Vatican summons a conclave of cardinals that must begin 15-20 days after Benedict's Feb. 28 resignation.
---- Cardinals eligible to vote those under age 80 are sequestered within Vatican City and take an oath of secrecy.
---- Any baptized Roman Catholic male is eligible for election as pope, but only cardinals have been selected since 1378.
---- Two ballots held each morning and two each afternoon in the Sistine Chapel. A two-thirds majority is required. Benedict in 2007 reverted back to this two-thirds majority rule, reversing a 1996 decision by Pope John Paul II, who had decreed that a simple majority could be invoked after about 12 days of inconclusive voting.
---- Ballots are burned after each round. Black smoke means no decision; white smoke signals that cardinals have chosen pope and he has accepted. Bells also signal the election of a pope to help avoid possible confusion over color of smoke coming from chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
---- The new pope is introduced from the loggia overlooking St. Peter's Square with the words "Habemus Papam!" (Latin for "We have a pope!") and he imparts his first blessing.