On February 28, Pope Benedict XVI will resign the papacy, and the Vatican will set about electing a new Pope by Papal Conclave. According to many newspaper reports, it has been almost 600 years since the last time a Pope resigned – what they haven’t mentioned is that it’s been even longer since a Pope has voluntarily resigned.

In 1415 Pope Gregory XII resigned as Pope in an attempt to end a long-running split in the Catholic Church. In fact, he had been elected on the condition that he would resign when the right conditions came about for a settlement. Therefore, it has actually been over 700 years since a new Pope has been elected by the Papal Conclave in these conditions. In 1294 Celestine V was the last Pope to voluntarily resign his seat in the way that Benedict XVI did on February 11, 2013.

It’s hardly surprising then that the timeline surrounding the procedure for electing a new Pope this coming March is little vague. Usually, the Vatican observes a 20-day mourning period before the election of a new Pope. This period was traditionally used to collect the Cardinals and to thoroughly de-bug the Sistine Chapel for any listening devices. But this Pope didn’t die, so what next?

On February 28, 2013, at 8 pm Benedict XVI resigned as Pope. The next step will be to hold a Papal Conclave to elect a new Pope. Historically this was a time during which the Cardinals were locked into the Sistine Chapel and adjoining buildings until they could agree on a new Pope. Back in the day, their food became more and more basic as days went by, until eventually, they were surviving on just bread and water – cruel perhaps, but maybe a little more understandable when you learn that it took 33 months for the election of Pope Gregory X before these rules.

This all changed in 1996 under Pope John Paul II though, and more comfortable arrangements prevailed at the election of Pope Benedict XVI when the Cardinals were given comfortable accommodation within the Vatican. When they meet in March 2013 then, the College of Cardinals will be staying in a complex of 131 furnished rooms. They will be shuttled to and from the Sistine Chapel by bus, although they will not be allowed to speak to anyone else during this time.

No Cardinal is allowed to vote for himself, and to be elected, the new Pope must have a two-third majority plus one extra vote. The new Pope must be under 80 years of age, and not every Cardinal must vote. When Pope Benedict XVII was elected, this process took two days and four votes.

When the new Pope is elected, white smoke rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. Since the smoke isn’t always discernably white (a fact which once led to a very confused Vatican Radio station announcing the election of the new Pope a day early) the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica will also ring out.

As the Papal Conclave will take place in the Sistine Chapel in March, we are expecting closures there, although the Vatican has yet to announce the dates or the extent of closures.

The hope will be to have a new Pope in place before Easter 2013. The most important event on the Catholic calendar, Holy Week begins on Sunday, March 24th, with Easter Sunday falling on March 31st. It goes without saying that the Pope is central to all the major celebrations.