16 April 2005
By Philip Pullella and Claudia Parsons
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic cardinals destroyed the late Pope John Paul's ring and seal on Saturday in a symbolic end to his authority before secluding themselves from the world to elect his successor and 265th pontiff.
As the cardinals held their last meeting before a conclave starts on Monday, the Vatican said smoke would pour from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel twice each voting day, telling the world whether or not a new pope has been elected.
At Saturday's meeting the cardinals watched an ancient ritual marking the transition between two popes -- the destruction of Pope John Paul's "Fisherman's Ring" and his lead seal, two symbols of his authority.
On Monday at 4:30 p.m. (3.30 p.m. British time) the 115 cardinal electors under the age of 80 from 52 countries will file in solemn procession into the Michelangelo-frescoed Sistine Chapel where the voting for a new pope takes place.
There the cardinal-electors will hold up to four ballots a day -- two in the morning and two in the afternoon -- until they elect the 265th pope in the 2000-year-old history of the Roman Catholic Church.
Smoke signals above the Sistine Chapel -- black smoke for an indecisive vote, white for a new pope -- are expected at around noon (11 a.m.) and 7 p.m. (6 p.m.) each voting day.
On Monday afternoon, after they swear an oath of secrecy and fidelity to the regulations governing the centuries-old election ritual, the cardinals will decide whether to hold a first ballot that night or to start voting on Tuesday morning.
The cardinals for the first time in centuries will live in a modern hotel -- the Domus Sanctae Marthae -- inside the Vatican and not in makeshift quarters around the Sistine Chapel.
They will move into the residence on Sunday.
On Monday morning cardinals will preside at a public Mass in St. Peter's Basilica before the start of the elaborate lock-up ritual in the Sistine and the residence that night.
WALK OR THE BUS, YOUR EMMINENCE?
The cardinals can decide if they want to walk the several hundred metres between the residence and the chapel or take a special bus. But the route will be off limits to all outsiders.
Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters at a final pre-conclave briefing that the times for the smoke signals were "purely approximate" and reiterated that when a new pope is chosen the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will ring out to accompany the white smoke so there is no confusion.
If they have not chosen a new pope in three days, they can pause for up to a day for what the Vatican says is prayer and reflection. That day could be either Thursday or Friday, depending on whether a vote is held on Monday night.
The new pope is chosen by a two-thirds majority but if no one has been elected after about 33 ballots, the cardinals can decide to move to an absolute majority vote or a run-off between two front-runners, Navarro-Valls said.
He said he was also confident than an elaborate, high-tech security clampdown around the conclave area will keep the proceedings secret and the cardinals cut off from the world.
The spokesman said Vatican security forces had swept both the Sistine Chapel and the residence for listening devices. He suggested that measures had been taken to neutralise cell phones in conclave areas.
"I can't give you details but I can assure you that all preventive measures have been taken by Vatican security experts," he said when asked if communications to and from the conclave areas would be blocked.
He joked that reporters might want to test the security by trying their own cell phones during a press visit to the Sistine Chapel on Saturday night.
Navarro-Valls said that in the 12 formal meetings the cardinals held between John Paul's death on April 2 and Saturday, no names had been put forward as candidates for the papacy.
"I can confirm that in these general congregations (cardinals' pre-conclave meetings) no name was put forward or discussed by the cardinals," he said.
Italian newspapers widely reported that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the conservative head of the Vatican's doctrinal department, had emerged as the clear front-runner in the pre-conclave meetings. Ratzinger turned 78 on Saturday.