What Does Black Or White Smoke From The Vatican's Chimney Mean?

A new pope is an extremely big deal. Per the Encyclopedia Britannica, there have only been about 260 popes over the past 2,000 years. Generally, a new pope is elected only after the old one dies. The current pope, Pope Francis, is a rare exception; he took over after Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013.

Since a new pope is such a big deal, the Catholic Church is bound to take the decision seriously, and accompany it with a fair amount of pomp and ceremony. You may have already heard of one particular ceremonial element: the use of black and white smoke. But what does this smoke mean?

First, it's important to understand how a new pope is chosen. Per the BBC, once a pope retires or dies, their successor is chosen by the "cardinal electors" — a group of roughly 120 of the Catholic Church's most senior officials from across the globe. These men gather together in Vatican City — specifically, Michelangelo's beautiful Sistine Chapel — to discuss who to select as the next pope. They place their votes, with a two-thirds majority needed to win.

While it's not strictly required, these cardinals often end up selecting a member of their own ranks to serve as pope, which can lead to a highly drawn-out electoral process. The BBC explains that the election process can take days, weeks, or even months. For that entire time, the electors must remain in the Vatican, and avoid all contact with the outside world.

White smoke means that a new pope has been elected, while black smoke indicates the opposite

That's where the smoke comes in. As the BBC continues, each time a new vote is conducted — typically twice a day — the ballots are gathered and burned in a small stove after being counted. The smoke from these burning ballots is emitted through a chimney above the Sistine Chapel. This smoke can be seen by thousands of onlookers who gather in St. Peter's Square and elsewhere. All of them are paying attention to one particular feature: its color. Although the ballots are burned, there is a second stove in the chapel, where chemicals are ignited to produce the required color. (Exactly those chemicals are remains a Vatican secret.) The smoke from the two stoves mixes and emerges to signal the ballot results, per The New York Times.

If black smoke is produced from the Vatican's chimney, that means that the cardinal electors have failed to reach an agreement by two-thirds majority. Black smoke is sure to send a wave of disappointment through the crowd of onlookers; white smoke is what they're after, indicating that the cardinal electors have successfully agreed upon a new pope to lead the Catholic Church. (Again, a secret chemical is used to produce that white color; the Times suggests it could be potassium chlorate.)

In 2005, there was some confusion about whether the smoke which poured from the Vatican's chimney was black or white. To clear that up, the Vatican has chosen to accompany the smoke with ringing bells in the event of an electoral victory.