Yesterday was Pope Benedict's final day in office. On Wednesday he held his final general audience in Saint Peter's Square, the large open area at the front of the Vatican. St. Peter's Basilica and Square by Arthur Gugick
Normally, there would be an official period of mourning before moving forward, but as Benedict is the first Pope in centuries to retire, rather than pass away, this is not needed. So very soon the Cardinals will gather in conclave. Cardinal by Bikicsmilan.
After a celebration of the Eucharist, they will seal themselves in the Sistine Chapel. Creation of Adam by Brendan Powell Smith.
The Cardinals will go through a series of secret ballots, and presumably much prayer and discussion. If they do not come to a decision, the ballots are burned, and an additive makes the smoke from the burning black. The smoke announces to the waiting world that a decision has not yet been made. Sede vacante by Jojo.
In past centuries the voting could go on for quite a long time before a Pope is chosen, even years. In more recent conclaves, the rules have been changed so that after a set number of days of ballots there is a run-off between the top vote-getters, so that a decision is ensured within two weeks of the opening of the conclave. At the point where a decision is made, the ballots are burned in a way that white smoke is released, and the declaration is made 'Habemus Papum' 'We have a Pope'. Habemus papum by Jojo.