A ringing of bells will accompany puffs of white smoke sometime, hopefully in the near future, announcing the election of a successor to Pope Benedict XVI and to the throne of
Shaped by centuries-old rituals, the conclave is set to begin Tuesday afternoon.
The name of the election procedure originates from the Latin "con clave" (with a key) and refers to the tradition of locking cardinals in a room until they agree upon a new pope.
As usual, voting will take place in the Michelangelo-frescoed Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Cardinals will swear an oath of secrecy about the proceedings and seal themselves off from the world.
To prevent any outside influence from affecting the election, the men will not be allowed to read newspapers, watch television, listen to the radio, exchange mail or use telephones and computers.
During the conclave, cardinals will be housed in the Casa Santa Marta, a hotel inside the Vatican built in the 1990s also used for the previous conclave. Before 2005, cardinals had to sleep in cramped conditions in the Apostolic Palace.
Theoretically, any baptized male Catholic is eligible to become pope. In practice, however, the conclave will elect one of the members of the College of Cardinals.
There is no official list of candidates for the papacy. Each cardinal simply writes the name of the person he favours on a slip headed with the words "Eligo in Summum Pontificem... " (I vote for ... as pope). Cardinals are encouraged to disguise their handwriting to prevent anyone from knowing where their sympathies lie.
From ballot to ballot, support builds for various figures, making the outcome clearer.
The first ballot will be Tuesday afternoon. After that, two ballots are expected every morning and two more every afternoon, until a two-thirds majority is reached.
Should no pope have been elected after three days, there must be an interruption of no more than a day to retire for prayer and "informal conversation among the electors," as John Paul II directed in his 1996 document Universi Dominici Gregis. The most senior cardinal addresses the conclave.
Three urns will be used for voting, the same ones used to elect Benedict XVI in 2005.
One is used to collect the cardinal's ballot papers; another one to hold them after they have been counted; and a third may be brought to cardinals confined to the Santa Marta hotel owing to illness or frailty.
Ballot papers are strung together and burned after each vote. When dark smoke rises from the Sistine chimney, this is a signal that no pope has been elected.
Though conclaves have in the past lasted months, and even years, in recent history they have never taken more than a week.
Once the necessary majority is achieved, the would-be pope is asked if he accepts the post. If he says yes, he assumes office from that moment and is asked to state the name he has chosen to use as pope - generally that of a former pontiff or of a beloved saint.
White smoke then rises from the Sistine Chapel, in a sign to the outside world that a pope has at last been elected.
At this point, the Cardinal Protodeacon, Frenchman Jean-Louis Tauran, will appear from the central balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica to announce to the world: "Habemus papam" (we have a pope).
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