Here's some background information about the Vatican's time table and process for choosing a new pope.
Approximate Time Table: (This timeline is based on 1996 Pope John Paul II's constitution on the conclave, "Universi Dominici Gregis," and on what by has happened in previous conclaves.)
Burial & Mourning upon Death of a Pope: Cardinals decide, after the death of the pope, when funerals and conclave begin.
Universi Dominici Gregis (hereafter referred to as Law) dictates that:
- There must be nine days of mourning.
- The conclave cannot begin earlier than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the pope's death.
- The pope has to be buried between the fourth and sixth day after death.
- The embalmed body of the pope has to be on display at St. Peter's Basilica for mourning.
Choosing a New Pope:
Based on the above and what traditionally happens after the pope dies, we can assume the following time table:
By tradition and law, Vatican Radio announces the pope's death: Sedes vacantes.
(Sedes Vacantes: The seat of the Holy See is empty and it is referred to the death of the pope.)
The Interregnum begins. Cardinals start gathering in Rome.
(Interregnum: The period between the death of pope and the election of a new pope.)
By tradition, the body of the pope is dressed in papal vestments and will be put on display at St. Peter's Basilica. Pilgrims will flock St. Peter's.
Mourning begins and by law must continue for 9 days (Novemdiales), ending on the 10th day after death. There will be a Mass on each day. (Novendiales: nine days of mourning.)
DAY FOUR, FIVE or SIX
By law, a burial takes place. Tradition calls for popes to be buried in St. Peter's Basilica.
By tradition, big funeral Mass takes place at St. Peter's.
DAY FIFTEEN (earliest possible date)
By law, conclave begins in the Sistine Chapel. On that morning, the cardinals will concelebrate the Votive Mass "Pro Eligendo Papa."
The cardinals will determine where to hold the Mass; most likely it will be in St. Peter's Basilica.
In the afternoon they will start the conclave. In theory they can vote that afternoon.
The Voting: The cardinals will vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon.
At the end of each voting session, they will burn the ballots and send a signal to the world by the color of the smoke: BLACK FOR NO POPE AND WHITE FOR POPE. For the first time, pealing bells from St. Peter's will accompany the white smoke, so that there is no confusion. Voting can go on for days.
After the New Pope Is Elected: He will come out St. Peter's Basilica main balcony.
A cardinal will say the words "Habemus Papa" and will announce the new pope's name.
By tradition, anywhere between 30 minutes to one hour can pass between the white smoke and the appearance on the balcony. It is only when the cardinal announces the name that we'll know who he is.
Inauguration of the new pope will likely take place days after his election. He decides where and when to hold the Mass, although it probably will be at St. Peter's.