People walk outside St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (Emilio Morenatti / Associated…)
VATICAN CITY -- Roman Catholic cardinals were set to begin a ritualized process Tuesday to decide who will lead 1.2 billion followers around the world, cloistering themselves as they choose the next pope.
The 115 cardinal electors were expected to move into Vatican accommodations at the Casa Santa Marta complex at 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, then attend a Mass with the public at St. Peter’s Basilica. They plan to file into the Sistine Chapel at 4:30 p.m. for their first ballot on who should replace Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned Feb. 28.
The elaborately regulated gathering at the Sistine Chapel, known as a conclave, is closed to outsiders. Only cardinals who are younger than 80 when the last pope dies or steps down are allowed to participate in the election. Ninety staffers who will attend to the cardinals during the conclave, including doctors, cooks and cleaners, were sworn to secrecy Monday afternoon.
In the chapel, an oath of secrecy will be taken in Latin on a Bible at the altar below Michelangelo’s famed frescoes before a cardinal says “Extra omnes” or “Everybody out.” The doors are then closed and the first vote will be taken.
Two-thirds of the cardinals must vote for the same man to select him as pope. With several front-runners reportedly emerging among the cardinals, the Tuesday afternoon vote is not widely expected to yield a decision. If nobody is chosen Tuesday, voting continues on Wednesday and thereafter with two votes each morning and two each afternoon.
Cardinals write down their vote for pope on rectangular ballots that say “I elect as Supreme Pontiff” in Latin. To stop each writer from being identified, the cardinals are supposed to disguise their script. Each folds his ballot twice and brings it to a receptacle on the chapel altar.
The ballots are recorded and read out by “scrutineers” chosen every morning and afternoon from among the cardinals, then threaded onto a string that is tied into a loop after all the votes are read. Afterward, the ballots are burned.
Inconclusive ballots will be announced by black smoke generated by a stove in the chapel after the two morning votes, around noon, and after the two afternoon votes, around 7 p.m.
Should a result be reached in the second vote of the morning or afternoon, white smoke will appear from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel at those times. If a pope is elected in the first vote of the morning or afternoon, the white smoke will appear around 10:45 a.m. or 5:45 p.m., respectively.
Once elected, the pope will be asked whether he accepts his new role and what papal title he will adopt. As the crowd in St. Peter’s Square sees white smoke billowing above the chapel, and the basilica bells toll, the pontiff is dressed in papal vestments and cardinals offer him their obedience. A single document is the only written record of the deliberations, sealed in an envelope that cannot be opened without the pope's permission.
On Monday, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said a rule change would allow, for the first time, the new pope a few moments of solitary prayer in the Paolina Chapel next to the Sistine Chapel. About 45 minutes after the white smoke is seen, the public will be told who the new pope is. Ten minutes later he will venture onto a balcony of the basilica to greet the crowd.
The next date in the new pope’s diary will be his inauguration, which will attract heads of state and could be held Sunday or March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the Catholic Church.
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.