VATICAN CITY -- Looking solemn at the task before them, senior prelates of the Roman Catholic Church filed into the Sistine Chapel and locked themselves in Tuesday afternoon to begin the process of voting for a new pope under conditions of utmost secrecy.
The 115 cardinals swore oaths on the Bible to keep their proceedings confidential and are now allowed to communicate with the outside world only through smoke signals, from a chimney on the chapel roof, to signify the outcome of the balloting. Vatican staff attending to the cardinals also have been admonished to be silent about the proceedings on pain of excommunication.
The prelates are expected to hold the first vote of their conclave early Tuesday evening local time, but that balloting is not likely to produce the two-thirds majority needed for a candidate to be elected. The man eventually chosen will be the 266th pope and will succeed Benedict XVI, who shocked the church by resigning last month.
PHOTOS: Vatican Conclave 2013
Following an elaborately choreographed ritual, the red-hatted cardinals moved in a slow procession out of the Pauline Chapel, past a line of colorfully garbed Swiss Guards, and into the adjoining Sistine Chapel. In pairs, they bowed before the altar while chanting a litany beseeching the help of the saints in choosing a new leader to guide the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
The cardinals took their places according to seniority at tables on either side of the small chapel, surrounded by Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes, as a choir sang. The oath was read out by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, enjoining all “to observe with the greatest fidelity ... secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman pontiff.”
In turn, each of the cardinals -- Roger Mahony of Los Angeles was among the first -- placed his hand on a Bible and swore to abide by the pledge, “so help me God and these holy Gospels which I touch with my hand.”
FULL COVERAGE: Choosing a new pope
Then, all but the “cardinal electors” and a few others participating in the liturgy were ordered out with a cry in Latin of “Extra omnes!” Video from inside the chapel by the Vatican’s television service, which had beamed images of the ritual around the world, was cut.
Vatican watchers expect a pope to be named within two or three days. No conclave of the past century has lasted more than five days.
But the field of possible candidates is unusually wide this time, amid reports of opposing camps forming among those who want a new leader to shake up the Vatican administration and others who are looking for a more pastoral figure.
Earlier Tuesday, the cardinals attended a special Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica, during which Cardinal Angelo Sodano exhorted his fellow prelates to rally around whomever the conclave elects as the next pope.
“St. Paul teaches that each of us must work to build up the unity of the church,” Sodano said. “Each of us is therefore called to cooperate with the successor of Peter.”
Conclave ceremonies underway at the Vatican
Roman Catholic Church feels Europe slipping from its hands
As conclave nears, front-runners emerge in search for new pope