Vatican City Cardinals had a few last hours to confer with aides or pray with faithful before required check-in at a top-security hotel in Vatican City on Sunday, a day before they will be sequestered in secret sessions in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope.
Many Vatican observers expect the conclave to choose Pope John Paul II's successor to likely last two or three days after the ritual-filled voting process begins either Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.
“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 titular church a short stroll from Rome's Spanish Steps.
Cardinal Antonelli is considered by some to be a dark-horse contender for the papacy.
Rank-and-file Roman Catholics were invited to join the cardinals Monday morning in one final public ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica, following the end on Saturday of a series of Masses to mourn John Paul, who died April 2 at age 84.
The dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, 78, will lead the Mass, which will be co-celebrated by all the other voting cardinals.
The German cardinal is considered the leading papal 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.
Late Monday afternoon, the cardinals will gather in the Apostolic Palace for a procession to the Sistine Chapel for their first session. Cardinal 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 hold a first ballot Monday afternoon or continue to reflect and begin voting on Tuesday morning.
The Turin daily newspaper La Stampa said many cardinals, gearing up for a stressful stretch of days, had packed compact disc players and headphones in their bags along with prayer books and their red hats.
Other prelates, it reported, found space in their suitcases for snacks to nibble on in their rooms in the $20-million (U.S.) Domus Sanctae Marthae hotel. John Paul had the residence 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 after the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul I, 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 II in 1996 banned cellphones, 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.
The Rome daily La Repubblica reported that in the final hours before the cardinals are shrouded in secrecy, there seemed to be no clear indication of how the initial voting might go.
Italians, with 20 cardinals, are the biggest national bloc of the 115 voting churchmen. But the newspaper's Vatican expert, Marco Politi, wrote that the Italians, whose 455-year-old hold on the papacy was broken by John Paul II's election, were divided, and there was no European or Third World candidate who had captured the prelates' imaginations. Voting cardinals decided days ago not to give interview 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 Sunday that he believed 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 Cardinal 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.”
Following solemn tradition, cardinals on Saturday destroyed John Paul II's 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 will signal to the world that the cardinals have chosen the latest in a line of popes dating two millennia to 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.
The cardinals take their own oath of secrecy after they enter the chapel at 4:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. EDT) Monday.