Let's say you want to become pope, head of the Catholic Church and shepherd to over 1 billion faithful.
What requirements must you have for this lofty position:
1) Be a catholic and
2) Be a man.
Which seems a little thin… and, while it's technically possible for a regular Sunday Catholic to become pope, the last time this happened was essentially never because becoming pope isn't like becoming president, you can't just run for office. Selecting the pope is an inside job and the men who do it are the cardinals, and while in theory they can select any catholic man to become pope, in practice they prefer to elevate one of their own.
The last time a non-cardinal become pope was more than 600 years ago. So, while it isn't an official requirement, it's an unofficial, official requirement.
Thus in order to be pope you'll first need to be a cardinal and to do that you'll need to start climbing the catholic corporate ladder.*
Step 1: Become a Priest.
Unlike some churches where you can fill out a form online and -- poof -- ordained. The Catholic Church treats becoming a priest as a real, you-need-training profession. So you're going to require a lot of education: usually a college degree in Catholic Philosophy and then a masters in divinity.
In addition to your educational qualifications, you must also be:
Willing to remain celibate forever.†
If you meet these requirements, and have been working with the church, then you can be officially ordained as a priest. Which basically means you get to run a Catholic Church, or work with another priest who does.
But, you want onward and to do that you need to take the job of the man who just made you a priest.
Step 2: Become a Bishop
Bishops are a much more select group: while there are about 400,000 catholic priests world wide, there are only about 5,000 bishops.
While priests get churches, bishops get cathedrals, from which they oversee a number of local churches.
To advance your career you must wait for a bishop in your area to be forced into retirement at age 75 or die sooner than that -- freeing up space for you.
But you can't just apply, because there's already a secret list of potential bishops that's updated every three years based on who the current bishops in your area think would make a good replacement for one of their own.
To be on that list, in addition to the obvious requirement of being a pious person, you should also:
Be least 35 years old
Have been priest for at least five years
Have a doctorate in theology (or equivalent)
Assuming you're all these things, your name may, or may not be on the secret list. The local bishops then give that list to the pope's ambassador for your country, known as the Apostolic Nuncio.
The Nuncio picks three priests from the list, does in-depth research on them, conducts interviews and selects the one he thinks is best.
But it's not over, because the Nuncio sends his report to Vatican City and the congress of bishops who work there reviewing potential appointments from around the world.
If the congress of bishops doesn't like any of the three candidates, they can tell the Nuncio to start over: returning to the list, picking another three candidates -- doing more research, more interviews and sending off the results.
When the congress of bishops is happy with one of the Nuncio's candidates that name is given to the pope, who can reject the candidate and start the whole process over.
It shouldn't be a surprise that from a vacancy to a bishop's replacement can take months and, on occasion, years.
But assuming that a bishop in your area retired (or died) at the right time and you were on the secret list of good priests and the Nuncio picked you and you made it through his interview and the congress of bishops approved you and the pope didn't veto you -- poof now you're now a bishop.
But you're still not on top. The penultimate promotion is...
Step 3: Become a Cardinal.
Despite the fancy name and snazzy red outfits to match cardinals are not the bosses of bishops, they are bishops, just with an additional title and additional responsibilities -- the most notable of which is electing the new pope.‡
The only way to become a cardinal is to get to current pope to appoint you as one -- and of the 5,000 bishops, only about 200 are ever cardinals.
But let's say your ambition doesn't go unnoticed by the pope and he makes you a cardinal -- now it's time to play the waiting game for his death or retirement -- and with popes death is vastly more likely.
When either happens the cardinals under the age of 80 are brought to Vatican City where they are isolated from the outside world -- presumably by taking away their cell phones and tablets and carrier pigeons. Once sequestered, the election of a new pope can begin.
These elections are never exactly the same because the ex-pope leaves instructions on how he wants his replacement to be picked, but in general it works like this: four times a day the cardinals go to the Sistine Chapel to vote -- to become pope one of them must get a 2/3rds majority.
There's a big dose of mustn't-be-too-hasty here as the cardinals don't just raise their hands, or use a modern preferential voting system, but instead write down one name on a piece of paper stand before the alter and say a long latin phrase, before officially casting the ballot.
Once all the cardinals have done this, the votes are counted and then burned.
This why TV news stations covering the election of the pope use super-modern-hd-livestreaming cameras to look at a chimney. If the smoke is black, no new pope.
The high victory threshold, and tediously slow voting process, is why it takes so long to elect a new pope. It's usually at least two weeks of voting four times a day six days a week (with one day a week for prayer) but the record length is three years.
Assuming you, eventually, win the support of your fellow cardinals, you have one final thing to do before becoming pope: pick yourself a new name.
There is no formal rule, you can name yourself anything you like but it's tradition to take the name of a previous pope.
Upon your acceptance of the job, the final ballots are burned clean to make the smoke white and announce to the world that a new pope has been selected.
So that's the career path: be born into the right half of the population, become one of a billion catholics, then one of 400,000 priests, then one of 5,000 bishops, then one of 200 cardinals, wait for the current pope to die or retire, and convince 2/3rds of your fellow cardinals to select you as the one, the only pope.
Notes & Corrections
- Recent papal elections have been shorter than two weeks.
Music: Kevin MacLeod