Italian Cardinals Salvatore de Giorgi and Camillo Ruini arrive to attend a solemn mass for the death of the Pope in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican
Alessandro Bianchi  /  Reuters
Italian Cardinals Salvatore de Giorgi, left, and Camillo Ruini arrive in Rome on Sunday to attend a Mass for Pope John Paul II. The sometimes arcane process of selecting a new pontiff will soon begin.
updated 4/4/2005 7:55:31 PM ET 2005-04-04T23:55:31

From every corner of the world, the red-robed “princes” of the Roman Catholic Church headed toward the Vatican to prepare for the secret duty they were appointed to carry out: gathering in the Sistine Chapel to elect the successor for the late Pope John Paul II.

It’s a process steeped in centuries-old rituals and arcane traditions, such as precise rules for how to bind together the tallied papal ballots with a needle and thread. But modern forces also are at play — including stronger voices from outside Europe among the College of Cardinals that could shape the outcome of the conclave.

“This pope has so broadened the outreach and meaning of the papacy,” said Jo Renee Formicola, a professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., who has studied Vatican trends. “It’s clear the cardinals will have to pay attention to this.”

It’s the nature of their role. The main task of a cardinal, a title granted by the pope, is the papal selection. Privately, they assess the constantly reshuffled list of “papabile,” the Italian word for likely papal candidates.

A power beyond Europe
The Roman Catholic’s most visible trend is its growing strength outside Europe — and this is reflected in the very makeup of the next conclave, bettering the prospects of African or Latin American candidates like Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican-based Nigerian, or Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes.

Asians, Africans and Latin Americans account for 44 of the cardinals under 80 years old — the condition for participating in the conclave and voting for the pope — compared with 58 from Europe. The United States, which could play an important swing role, has 11 cardinals among the 117 papal electors — the largest group that will ever decide on the next pontiff when the conclave begin later this month.

It’s almost certain the next pope will be among them: although technically the cardinals can select any baptized male Roman Catholic, the last time they looked outside their elite group was 1378.

Change of plans
Many cardinals have been living here working in Vatican posts. Others cut short trips or canceled plans and began heading to Rome.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s commission for Christian unity, interrupted a visit to Bulgaria. Belgium’s Cardinal Godfried Danneels quickly left China. Four American cardinals were in Rome. The other seven U.S. papal electors started making plans to come after John Paul’s death was announced late Saturday.

The papal electors will begin daily pre-conclave meetings. They will swear fidelity to the codes of secrecy, at the implicit risk of excommunication. All the cardinals then will come together in public next week for the papal funeral Mass, which will be lead by the dean of the College of Cardinals. The others will take their places around the papal coffin in order of seniority.

The electors next assemble — no later than two weeks after the funeral, but no sooner than nine days after — to pick a successor to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

John Paul's long shadow
Here, with the electors sequestered behind the Vatican walls, begins a scene fundamentally unchanged since cardinals were given sole papal selection authority nearly 1,000 years ago.

The aura of John Paul II will be strong.

He amended conclave rules in 1996 with his document “Universi Dominici Gregis,” or “Shepherd of the Lord’s Whole Flock,” which bolstered and updated the conclave rules. Each cardinal will place his hand on the Gospels for an oath pledging loyalty to the next pope and to promising never to reveal what occurred in the chamber.

According to procedures outlined by the Vatican, the cardinals will first assemble in the Pauline Chapel, decorated with Michelangelo frescoes to Saints Peter and Paul, and sing a Latin hymn, “Veni Creator,” which seeks guidance from the Holy Spirit. Then they move into the Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo’s majestic “The Last Judgment.”

It will be a new experience for nearly all the papal electors. Only a handful took part in the 1978 election of the first Polish-born pontiff, which took eight ballots over two days. The cardinals 80 or older cannot attend.

All out’
Aides and others accompany the cardinals into the chapel. A meditation is offered on the qualities needed for the next pope and the challenges ahead for the church.

“Extra omnes,” an official then cries — Latin for “all out,” except the cardinals.

And those left behind cannot leave until a pope is selected unless for a medical emergency. In that case, special arrangements are made for the cardinal to vote from his sickbed.

In the past, makeshift quarters were created in and around the Sistine Chapel. Cardinals accustomed to first-class luxury were forced to sleep in corners of salons or in stairwells. This time, the cardinals will be staying at the $20 million Domus Santae Marthae, a hotel-style site within the Vatican with 108 suites and 23 single rooms, all with baths. The rooms are assigned by lot during a conclave.

Sequestered during deliberations
But one thing will not change: the attempt to block all outside influences. There is no television, publications, telephone access or anything else that could be used to sway cardinals. Technicians will sweep the area for any bugs or evidence of high-powered eavesdropping devices being aimed from outside the Vatican walls. Windows are closed and curtains drawn.

In 1243, the Senate and people of Rome broke a year-and-a-half deadlock by locking the cardinals until they finally elected a new pope. In 1271, the cardinals were not only locked up, but were put on a diet of bread and water until they could agree.

The pope chosen in 1271, Gregory X, formalized these drastic measures as conclaves. Despite his efforts, 29 subsequent conclaves lasted more than a month. But no conclave since 1831 has lasted more than four days.

Initially, a two-thirds majority is needed. But John Paul amended the rules to allow for a simple majority after a three rounds of balloting and pauses.

Even the voting is rich in ritual. Each cardinal approaches the altar in the Sistine Chapel, kneels and prays and uses a large plate to slide his ballot into a chalice.

Smoke signals
Three cardinals, given the role of “scrutineers,” count the ballots: the first two remove and tally the votes; the third announces the names and then passes a needle through the first word printed on the ballots, “Eligo in summen pontificem,” or “I elect as Supreme Pontiff.”

The ballots are tied together by string and burned along with a special chemical. Black smoke signifies the voting will continue. White smoke means a new pope has been elected.

The new pope must utter the word “Accepto,” or I accept, to formally seal the selection.

Within hours, a senior cardinal will appear at the central window in St. Peter’s Basilica. A brief announcement will end with “Habemus papam” — “We have a pope.”

The new pontiff will then look out over St. Peter’s Square.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Cardinals gather to elect a pope

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