Cardinals pray before conclave to elect Pope

CARDINALS yesterday began "an intense period of silence and prayer" before their conclave to choose the next Pope, saying they will stop speaking publicly to protect the secrecy surrounding the centuries-old tradition.

The throngs of pilgrims who attended John Paul II's funeral on Friday flowed out of Rome on Saturday, leaving mainly tourists in a quiet, rainy St Peter's Square, some gazing forlornly at the window where the Pope traditionally appeared to greet the faithful.

The Vatican said a decision on calls to put John Paul on a fast track to sainthood would rest with the next Pope.

Italian Cardinal Francesco Marchisano celebrated the second Mass for John Paul in St Peter's Basilica, a daily rite over nine days that began with the funeral Mass.

The Vatican also released photographs of the late Pope's tomb, a white marble slab, slightly raised off the floor and tilted, with the dates of his 26-year reign. It also bears the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek, a common symbol with roots in early Christianity. The grave is in the small grotto once occupied by the sarcophagus of Pope John XXIII, which was moved into the main floor of St Peter's Basilica after his 2000 beatification.

The unanimous vote on Saturday by 130 cardinals to maintain public silence about John Paul's successor was unprecedented. But in an era of continuous news updates and constant speculation, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls called the media ban an "act of responsibility". He asked journalists not to ask the cardinals for interviews and said they should not take the prelates' silence as an act of "discourtesy". At least two cardinals later turned down interview requests

The lack of access to the cardinals was unlikely to stem the speculation about John Paul's successor, with worldwide interest peaking in what could be a tight competition between reformers and conservatives.

American Cardinal Bernard Law, an embattled figure in the US, presided at Mass yesterday in Rome's St Mary Major Basilica, the church where John Paul appointed him archpriest, but did not give the homily.

Cardinal Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in December 2002 after unsealed court records revealed he had allowed priests guilty of abusing children to move among parish assignments and had not notified the public.

Dr Navarro-Valls said 115 prelates will participate in the conclave, which will begin on April 18 - all the cardinals under the age of 80 except for Jaime Sin of the Philippines and Alfonso Antonio Suarez Rivera of Mexico, who are too sick to attend. John Paul took the name of an additional cardinal (kept secret apparently to protect him from a government that represses religious activity) to the grave.

Cardinal Karl Lehmann was quoted by the German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung as saying race and background will play a role in the choice of the next Pope, but there were no clear favourites and "probably also no firm alliances".

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