How does the Vatican elect a new pope? 7 things to know about a conclave

Following Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising announcement Monday that he will resign from the papacy on Feb. 28, the first pope to do so in more than 600 years, the Vatican is preparing to elect his successor.

That process will happen in what is termed a “conclave,” which will be called within 20 days of the German pontiff resigning from office, according to Vatican officials.

But what, exactly, is a conclave? And how does it work? Here are 7 key points:

L'Osservatore Romano/AP
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, center, talks to other cardinals after Pope Benedict XVI, not pictured, announced his resignation during a meeting with the cardinals, at the Vatican, Monday.

1. What is a conclave?

It is a meeting of cardinals specifically to choose a new pope. Only cardinals who are under the age of 80 are eligible to vote – there will be 118 of them in next month’s conclave. The word conclave originates from the Latin cum clavi – with a key – because cardinals used to literally be cloistered behind locked doors until they came to a decision.

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