Your Handy Dandy Guide to Becoming the Pope

PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI leads the Ash Wednesday service at the St. Peters Basilica on February 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI leads the Ash Wednesday service at the St. Peter's Basilica on February 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Ash Wednesday opens the liturgical 40-day period of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, penitence and alms giving leading up to Easter.

Pope Benedict XVI is set to retire in just three short days on February 28. That's going to leave one big gaping hole in the Catholic church, which its cardinals are tasked with filling. So, if you're thinking about becoming the next pope, there are some hoops you'll need to jump through first.

For starters, the future pope has to be a man and he has to be Catholic. If you have that down, then you should know you have to be "super holy" and "wicked smart," as blogger/Reverend James Martin puts it.

Of course, you'll also need the right credentials. For example, you have to first be a member of the elite College of Cardinals, the body which votes to elect a pope. There are only about 200 of these cardinals around the world, and they are chosen from the pool of bishops (there are about 5,000 bishops worldwide) by the pope himself. They typically wear lovely red capes and jaunty hats that resemble Chinese takeout containers. Until the age of 80, cardinals are responsible for voting on the next pope. After 80, they're still cardinals, but can't vote anymore.

In order to become a bishop (to qualify to become a cardinal), you must have first served as a priest for at least five years. And to become ordained as a priest, you typically need a college degree in Catholic philosophy, a Masters degree in divinity, and you have to vow to remain celibate and unmarried. (Watch this helpful video by C.G.P Grey for a more thorough breakdown of what it takes to be a pope.)

When you've finally risen to the rank of cardinal, you should have a really good chance of becoming pope, right? Technically, yes. Except, that the current pope has to die first or retire. Lucky for the current cardinals, this is the first time a pope has retired in 600 years, so you probably shouldn't count this as the best example.

There are other, less official, things that can help if you want to be pope. It'd probably help to be European-born. There's hasn't been a non-European pope in hundreds of years and most theological experts say the next one will also likely be European. That's because the College of Cardinals, which was originally made up of the clergy of Rome, is mostly European to this day. That may be a reflection of the fact that the pope tends to choose his the cardinals himself. Pope picks cardinals, cardinals pick pope, and so on.

It wasn't until the 1960's that the Church made efforts to incorporate regional diversity by bringing in cardinals from the growing Catholic populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Still, just about half of the members who will vote on the next pope are European and less than one fifth are from Latin America. Italy has the most cardinal-electors with 28, and the United States has the next most electors with 11.

So, if the pope does die or retire, and you happen to hold the coveted title of cardinal, your fellow cardinals will have to elect you by a two-thirds majority. While the particular election process is determined by the prior pope, and remains very hush-hush, it typically entails the "elector" cardinals casting secret ballots four times a day, in closed meetings, until the two-thirds majority is reached. If a pope is picked during one of those votes, the Vatican will send up white smoke signals to announce to the public that there is a new pope. And if no consensus is reached, the Vatican sends up black smoke signals. This can take days, weeks, months, and sometimes years.

For this round of elections, Vatican experts told USA Today that the top five contenders are Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, Archbishop of Genoa; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former Archbishop of Quebec; Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture; and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican's office for Eastern Churches.

Sorry if you don't see your name on that list. There's always next time.

CORRECTION: A prior version of this article incorrectly stated that all top contenders, as reported by USA Today, were European. Cardinal Marc Ouellet is from Canda.