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Pope Benedict XVI: Electing a successor and a timeline of his papacy

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Pope Benedict XVI attends Palm Sunday Mass in Vatican City.

Pope Benedict XVI's resignation sets in motion a complex sequence of events to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The laws governing the selection after a pope's resignation are the same as those in force after a papal death, aside from skipping a period of mourning. 

Below 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.
  • There are currently 118 cardinals under age 80 and eligible to vote, 67 of whom were appointed by Benedict. However, four of them will turn 80 before the end of March. Depending on the date of the conclave, they may or may not be allowed to vote.
  • Any baptized Roman Catholic male is eligible for election as pope, but only cardinals have been selected since 1378.
  • Two ballots are 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. Benedict did so to prevent cardinals from holding out for 12 days then pushing through a candidate who only had only a slim majority.
  • 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 then imparts his first blessing.
Below is a timeline of key events in Pope Benedict XVI's time as the head of the Catholic Church:

  • April 2, 2005: Pope John Paul II dies.
  • April 8, 2005: As dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger presides over John Paul's funeral.
  • April 19, 2005: Elected 265th pope in one of the fastest conclaves in history. Choosing name Benedict XVI, he says he is merely a "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord."
  • April 24, 2005: Installed as pope with Mass.
  • Aug. 18-21, 2005: First foreign trip, to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany.
  • Sept. 24, 2005: Meets with dissident theologian Hans Kung at papal summer residence.
  • Dec. 25, 2005: First encyclical "God is Love" signed. Released Jan. 25, 2006.
  • May 28, 2006: During trip to Poland, visits Auschwitz concentration camp.
  • Sept. 12, 2006: During visit to Germany, delivers speech at University of Regensburg that enrages Muslims; quoting a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
  • April 16, 2007: First volume of "Jesus of Nazareth" completed on his 80th birthday. Released April 13.
  • May 27, 2007: Signs letter to China's Catholics, urging them to unite under his authority. Published June 30.
  • July 7, 2007: Removes restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass in major gesture to traditional Catholics.
  • April 20, 2008: During visit to United States, prays for victims of Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at ground zero.
  • July 19, 2008: During visit to Australia for World Youth Day, meets with victims of priestly sex abuse and during a Mass apologizes for their suffering.
  • Jan. 21, 2009: Lifts excommunication of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson and three other ultra-traditionalist bishops of Society of St. Pius X, igniting outrage. Decree released Jan. 24.
  • March 10, 2009: Acknowledges Vatican mistakes in Williamson affair, says Vatican must make better use of Internet to prevent future controversies. Letter released March 12.
  • March 17, 2009: En route to Cameroon, tells reporters aboard papal plane that condoms are not the solution to AIDS and can make problem worse, prompting widespread criticism.
  • May 11, 2009: During visit to the Holy Land, lays wreath at Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, says Holocaust victims "lost their lives but they will never lose their names."
  • June 29, 2009: Third encyclical "Charity in Truth" signed. Released July 7, 2009.
  • July 17, 2009: Breaks right wrist in late-night fall at summer vacation home.
  • Oct. 20, 2009: Vatican announces pope is making it easier for Anglicans to convert en masse to Catholicism.
  • March 19, 2010: Rebukes Irish bishops for "grave errors of judgment" in handling clerical sex abuse but makes no mention of Vatican responsibility in letter to Irish faithful. Released March 20.
  • May 1, 2010: Orders major overhaul of Legion of Christ after Vatican investigation determines founder was a fraud.
  • Sept. 16-19, 2010: During first state visit by a pope to Britain, meets with Queen Elizabeth II, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and beatifies Anglican convert John Henry Newman.
  • Nov. 20, 2010: Revises controversial condom-AIDS comments in book and says male prostitutes who use condoms may be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality.
  • March 2, 2011: Issues sweeping exoneration of Jews for the death of Christ in "Jesus of Nazareth-Part II." Book released March 10.
  • May 1, 2011: Beatifies John Paul II before 1.5 million people.
  • June 28, 2011: Tweets for the first time, announcing launch of Vatican news information portal.
  • Oct. 6, 2012: Pope's former butler is convicted on charges he stole the pontiff's private letters and leaked them to a journalist.
  • Feb. 11, 2013: Reveals in Latin that he is stepping down Feb. 28 during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators.

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