Nightly News   |  March 09, 2013

Vatican prepares to elect new pope

Vatican workers hoisted a chimney onto the roof of the Sistine Chapel on Saturday to prepare for the conclave that will elect a successor to Pope Benedict. NBC’s Anne Thompson reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> good evening. there is palpable anticipation here in rome that within days a new pope, a new leader of the catholic church , could emerge on a vatican balcony above st. peter's square. and now that we finally know the voting to choose a new pope will start here on tuesday, there has been a flurry of activity this weekend to ready the sistine chapel for the historic conclave. that includes things like making sure we will all be able to clearly see the smoke that will tell us a new pope has been chosen. it's not like vatican workers get a lot of practice at this. there have only been four papal conclaves held in the last 50 years. today our cameras got a look inside the famous chapel, in a way tourists never see it, as the mechanics of an ancient ritual, with profound implications, are put into place. anne thompson 's here to tell us more about it.

>> good evening, lester. for these cardinal electors this is the most important decision of their lives. the church is shrinking here in europe but it's growing elsewhere in the world and many are still scarred by the pain of clergy sex abuse . then there are all the allegations of corruption. the next pope must guide the church into the future and deal with the mistakes of the past. this is where the world's eyes will turn next week. the temporary chimney today put in place on the roof of the sistine chapel . the only clue about what goes on inside. this may be the most famous stage in the world. on the left here that is where the smoke is created. black if there's no pope, white if there is pope. on the right, that is where the ballots are burned. carpenters put the finishing touches on the protective floor. some 60 feet below the chapel's famous ceiling. this is where the work will be done. the cardinals will sit in two rows, on either side of the chapel. then individually, they will take their ballots up to the altar, and in front of michelangelo's last judgment they will cast their ballots for pope. the voting begins early tuesday evening, following a mass that morning at st. peter's basilica. 77 is the number of votes a candidate needs to be elected pope. two thirds plus one of the 115 electors. if no one succeeds on the first ballot the cardinals will then vote twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. if deadlocked by the end of friday, they'll take saturday off and resume voting sunday. all the while, cut off from the world. electronic jamming in place around the sistine chapel and the house where they'll stay to keep the cardinals focused on the spiritual task at hand. alberto maloney is a noted church historian .

>> they think that in the 21st century , camera, and tv network are the real prison of the cardinal. so they do know that for three days everybody would see what is going on.

>> reporter: what's going on now is the guessing game. the conclave nears, two american cardinals are still talked about as upon candidates. timothy dolan of new york and a growing favorite here in italy, sean o'malley of boston. a first for the usa in a field that observers say remains wide open .

>> maybe something has shifted there. will people say what's more important is the skill and evangelization and presenting the message. and as an american, why not?

>> reporter: and is there more history to be made? no conclave has gone more than five days in the past century. but with no front-runner, some wonder if this conclave could go past that mark, lester.