Cardinals enjoyed the few last hours today to confer with aides or pray with faithful before they were required to check-in at a top-security hotel in Vatican City, where they will be sequestered in secret sessions in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope.
Many Vatican observers expect the conclave to last two or three days after the start of voting either tomorrow afternoon or Tuesday morning. But the ritual-filled election process to choose Pope John Paul II’s successor could last many more days.
“The new pope has already been chosen by the Lord. We just have to pray to understand who he is,” Florence Cardinal Ennio Antonelli told the congregation in St Andrea delle Fratte, his church a short stroll from Rome’s Spanish Steps.
Antonelli is considered by some to be a dark-horse contender for the papacy.
Roman Catholics were invited to join the cardinals tomorrow morning in one final public ceremony in St Peter’s Basilica, following the end of a series of Masses to mourn John Paul, who died on April 2.
The dean of the College of Cardinals, 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, will lead the Mass, which will be co-celebrated by all the other voting cardinals.
The German cardinal is considered the leading contender among some church-watchers, who reason that prelates may elect an older man in the likelihood he would lead a shorter “transition” papacy after the 26-year tenure of John Paul II.
Late tomorrow afternoon, the cardinals will gather in the Apostolic Palace for a procession to the Sistine Chapel for their first session. Ratzinger will recite a prayer in Latin that the voters be guided “in our hearts in love and in patience”.
Once inside the chapel, the prelates can decide to hold a first ballot late tomorrow afternoon, or continue to reflect and begin voting Tuesday morning.
The prelates will be staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae hotel, which John Paul had constructed on the tiny city-state’s grounds so cardinals could rest in more comfort in private rooms between voting sessions in the chapel.
When the last conclaves were held, in 1978, including the one that chose John Paul, the cardinals – many of them elderly – spent uncomfortable nights in makeshift cubicles and had to share bathrooms as part of their accommodations in the Apostolic Palace.
While creature comforts have improved, rules made by John Paul in 1996 banned cell phones, TV, radios and newspapers during the conclave to reduce the possibility cardinals could be influenced by outside news while they reflect on the man who will lead the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.
Italians, with 20 cardinals, are the biggest national bloc of the 115 voting churchmen.
But Marco Politi, Vatican expert for of the Rome daily La Repubblica, wrote that the Italians, whose 455-year-old hold over the papacy was broken by John Paul II’s election, were divided and that there was no European or Third World candidate who had captured the prelates’ imaginations.
Voting cardinals decided days ago not to give interviews before the vote, and it was not clear what La Repubblica’s assessment was based on.
Italian cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, who at 86 is too old to vote, indicated in remarks on Italian state radio today that he thought his younger peers would be looking for a candidate who would be in tune with global problems - particularly issues of justice, peace and even the environment.
“He will promote the values of the world that don’t go against the Gospel,” said Pappalardo, who spoke out against the Sicilian Mafia when he was Palermo’s archbishop.
“Providence sends a pope (to meet the needs) of every era,” he said.
Following solemn tradition, cardinals on Saturday destroyed John Paul Fisherman’s Ring and lead seal to formally end his reign.
The next pope’s name will be announced from the central balcony of the basilica, a short time after tolling bells and puffs of white smoke from the chapel stove signal to the world that the cardinals have chosen the latest in a line of popes stretching across two millennia from St Peter, the first pontiff.
On Saturday, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said expert technicians from the Holy See’s security staff had made sure no communication would leak from the chapel before the traditional smoke could be sent up.
The hotel also was swept for potential sources of security breaches, and all staff assisting the cardinals – including cooks, maids, elevator operators and the drivers who will shuttle them the few hundred yards from the hotel to the chapel – have taken vows of silence.
Swiss Guards said jamming devices used to prevent any listening devices, cell phones and bugs from working were located beneath a false floor on which the cardinals will sit in the chapel.
The cardinals take their own oath of secrecy after they enter the chapel at 4.30pm local time (2.30pm Irish time) tomorrow.