April 18, 2005
VATICAN CITY - Cardinals from six continents began secret deliberations Monday to choose a new leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, convening behind the massive doors of the Sistine Chapel in the first papal conclave of the new millennium.
The doors to the chapel decorated with frescoes by Michelangelo and wired with electronic jamming devices to thwart eavesdropping were shut, leaving the 115 voting "princes" of the church to decide whether to hold their first round of voting for a new pope Monday or wait until Tuesday.
Before sequestering themselves inside the chapel, the cardinals read out an oath of secrecy led by German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who stood before a large crucifix adorned with a golden Jesus. One by one, they filed up to a Book of the Gospels, placed their right hands on it and pronounced a second oath to keep secret their deliberations to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II, who died April 2 at age 84.
As the cardinals prepared for their historic election, throngs of pilgrims and tourists converged on St. Peter's Square to watch the chapel chimney for the white smoke that ultimately will tell the world that the church's 265th pontiff has been chosen. The famous stove in the chapel also will billow black smoke to signal any inconclusive sessions of voting.
Although the conclave could last for days, a pope could be chosen as early as Monday evening if the prelates opt to begin casting ballots after settling into the chapel.
Ratzinger's admonition read, in part: "In a particular way, we promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting; we promise and swear not to break this secret in any way ..."
Ratzinger - a powerful Vatican official often mentioned as a leading papal contender - began by reciting a prayer at the Apostolic Palace. The cardinals chanted the Litany of the Saints as they made the short walk to the chapel, led by altar servers carrying two long, lit white candles and a metal crucifix.
In a stately and colorful procession carried live on television, they walked past a pair of Swiss Guards in red plumed hats standing at attention at the chapel entrance and took two steps into the voting area, where special devices were installed beneath a false floor to block cell phone calls or bugs in an unprecedented effort to secure the proceedings.
Most of the cardinals were clad in crimson vestments and hats except for two Eastern Rite prelates - Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine and Ignace Moussa I Daoud of Syria - who wore black. Ratzinger entered the chapel last - an honor bestowed upon the dean of the College of Cardinals.
Before the procession, Ratzinger asked for prayers from the church that a pastor fit to lead all of Christ's flock would be elected.
"May the Lord lead our steps on the path of truth, so that through the intercession of the blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, and of all the saints, we may always do that which is pleasing to him," he said in Latin.
With Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" as a backdrop behind the altar, depicting a muscular Jesus amid masses of people ascending to heaven or falling to hell, the cardinals took their assigned places behind their name placards, with a copy of the conclave ritual on their desks.
They then placed their red, three-cornered square birettas on the tables, leaving their crimson skullcaps on their heads.
"I slept well, and now my ideas are clear," French Cardinal Paul Poupard said as he headed into a special pre-conclave Mass held earlier Monday at St. Peter's Basilica. "I have realized the seriousness of the election. The Holy Spirit will do the rest."
In his homily at the Mass, Ratzinger, who presided from the main altar usually reserved for a pope, was applauded by fellow cardinals as he asked God to give the church "a pastor according to his own heart, a pastor who guides us to knowledge in Christ, to his love and to true joy."
But in unusually blunt terms, he made clear what type of pastor that should be: one who should not allow "a dictatorship of relativism" - the ideology that there are no absolute truths - to take deeper root.
Outside the basilica, the faithful thronged the square, eager to bear witness to history in the making.
"I feel really cool being here," said Kathy Mullen, 49, a writer from Beverly, Mass. "The last pope was very special, so I don't know how they're going to pick another one. I will be here in the square because it's so historic."
If the cardinals decide to hold off a day, they will hold four rounds of voting - two in the morning, two in the afternoon - daily until a candidate gets two-thirds support: 77 votes. If no one is elected after three days, voting pauses for up to one day.
If cardinals remain deadlocked late in the second week of voting, they can vote to change the rules so a winner can be elected with a simple majority: 58 votes.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said smoke from burned ballot papers enhanced by special chemicals likely could be seen at about noon (6 a.m. EDT) and about 7 p.m. (1 p.m. EDT) on each day of voting by the cardinal electors, all of whom are under age 80. At some point soon after the new pope is chosen, the Vatican also will ring bells.
The cardinals spent their first night in the super-secure Domus Sanctae Marthae, a $20 million hotel that John Paul had constructed inside Vatican City so they could rest in comfort in private rooms between voting sessions.
Conspicuously missing from their quarters were cell phones, newspapers, radios, TVs and Internet connections - all banned by John Paul to minimize the chances of news influencing their secret deliberations and to prevent leaks to the outside world. The Vatican's security squad swept the chapel for listening devices, and cooks, maids, elevator operators and drivers were sworn to secrecy, with excommunication the punishment for any indiscretions.
No conclave in the past century has lasted more than five days, and the election that made Cardinal Karol Wojtyla pope in October 1978 took eight ballots over three days.
Cardinals faced a choice that boiled down to two options: an older, skilled administrator who could serve as a "transitional" pope while the church absorbs John Paul's 26-year legacy, or a younger dynamic pastor and communicator - perhaps from Latin America or elsewhere in the developing world where the church is growing - who could build on the late pontiff's popularity over a quarter-century of globe-trotting.
The issues sure to figure prominently in the conclave include containing the priest sex-abuse scandals that have cost the church millions in settlements in the United States; coping with a chronic shortage of priests and nuns in the West; halting the stream of people leaving a church whose teachings they no longer find relevant; and improving dialogue with the Islamic world.
"We are praying together with the church for everything to get better," said Sister Annonciata, 42, a Rwandan nun from the Little Sisters of Jesus order who was on the square Monday.