In a tradition dating back centuries, the cardinals will remain locked in the chapel beneath the colorful frescoes of Michelangelo until one of them is chosen as the 264th successor to St. Peter.
The cardinals have yet to decide whether they will vote today. But if history is any indication, the conclave could last between three and five days.
In the nine days of mourning since John Paul's death, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a staunch conservative in charge of church doctrine, has emerged as the favorite.
Robert Moynihan, a historian and editor of “Inside the Vatican,” a monthly magazine, told RFE/RL by phone from Vatican City that pre-conclave debate among the cardinals has focused on both the religious and political beliefs of the various candidates.
“Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has always been a staunch supporter of the liturgical and mystical idea of the human soul," Moynihan said. "Nevertheless, I would never say that he’s opposed to justice in economic dealings; it’s just that he doesn’t put that at the forefront of his thought. And he’s been criticized for that by some of the Latin American and even some of the Italian cardinals. They’re the more progressive cardinals.”
Ratzinger, a close aide of John Paul, reportedly has the backing of at least 50 cardinals. But that leaves him short of the necessary 77 votes. And in previous votes, early papal favorites rarely end up winning.
Moynihan said that an opposing bloc of cardinals, many from the developing world, are likely to seek a candidate who puts more emphasis on social justice than on religious orthodoxy.
“And they want an alternative to this sort of conservative Catholic position, [and they] would bring in someone like [Cardinal Claudio] Hummes, from Sao Paulo in Brazil, who is quite a close friend of the president of Brazil, [Luis Inacio] Lula [da Silva]," Moynihan said. "And they want to do this because they don’t want people to suffer in this world so much and so long and to wait so long for a social opportunity.”
But in the end, a compromise candidate is likely to become pope. Moderate candidates include several Europeans, such as Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan and Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris.
“I think what they’re going to do is come down right exactly in the middle," Moynihan said. "It’s not going to be a revolutionary figure. I don’t think they want anything hysterical.”
Barring a surprise election today, the cardinals will hold ballots four times a day starting tomorrow until they reach the necessary majority.
White smoke from the chapel’s chimney will signal a pope has been elected, while black smoke will mean there’s been an unsuccessful vote. The smoke is generated by mixing chemicals with the cardinals’ ballots and then burning them in an old wrought-iron stove.
No 20th century conclave has taken longer than five days. Eight ballots over three days were needed in 1978 to choose John Paul, a surprise outsider.
During the conclave, the cardinals are banned from communicating with the outside world. But the Vatican is now taking extra security measures.
Mobile phones, newspapers, television, radio, and the Internet are banned. A false floor has also been put in the chapel to fit electronic counter-bugging devices.
(Compiled from news-agency reports)