Sun Apr 17, 2005
By Barry Moody
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic cardinals begin the daunting task on Monday of finding a man to fill the shoes of Pope John Paul in a unique election mixing ancient ritual with ultra-modern technology.
In a process dating back to medieval times, 115 "Princes of the Church" from 52 countries will be locked into the Vatican on Monday afternoon after a public Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
They will emerge from the conclave and communicate with the outside world again only when they have chosen the first new pontiff of the third Christian millennium and the 264th successor to St. Peter.
If the conclave resembles previous ones, the cardinals will need several days and repeated votes in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel to reach the required majority.
Whoever they choose will have to try to make his mark in the shadow of one of the most dynamic papacies in history.
"I pity the new pope because they are bound to make comparisons. He could be a saint but he will find it very difficult to do his job ... because John Paul made such a huge impression," said Austrian Helga Pasquale Niederkofler after attending Mass in Rome on Sunday.
The conclave vote appears wide open with no real indication of who will emerge as the new leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
In the nine days of mourning since John Paul's death, media speculation and the bookmakers have tipped the former pontiff's closest aide and arch-conservative German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the early leader.
But in papal conclaves, like long-distance races, it is considered a disadvantage to break from the pack too early.
Most Vatican experts doubt that Ratzinger, whose conservative dogma has polarised the Catholic world, will be able to garner the two-thirds majority needed to become pope.
The cardinals emphasised that their choice would be dictated by divine influence rather than lobbying and corridor deals.
"People think that we are going to vote like in an election. But this is something completely different. We are going to listen to the Lord and listen to the Holy Spirit," said Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, himself considered a Third World candidate.
As in medieval times, the cardinals will be banned from communicating with the outside world, but the Vatican has taken new high-tech measures to ensure secrecy in the 21st century.
Mobile phones, newspapers, television, radio and the Internet will be banned. A false floor has been built in the chapel, where Michelangelo frescoes adorn the ceiling and walls, to accommodate an array of electronic counter-bugging measures.
The cardinal electors moved into a comfortable, specially built residence in the Vatican on Sunday night, an innovation some Vatican watchers believe could delay the vote.
For hundreds of years until the last conclave in 1978 the cardinals were locked inside the Sistine Chapel throughout, sleeping in small cells and sharing bathrooms.
The spartan environment was imposed to force a quick decision and avoid a repeat of a 13th century election that took almost three years. Conditions were so tough in medieval times that some cardinals died during conclaves.
But 20th century elections have been short, none taking longer than five days. Eight ballots over three days were needed in 1978 to choose John Paul, an untipped outsider.
The cardinals have yet to decide whether they will hold a vote on Monday night. After that they will hold ballots four times a day until they reach the necessary majority.
The cardinals' ballot papers are burned in an old wrought-iron stove inside the Sistine Chapel with additives to make black smoke visible outside if they are unsuccessful and white when a new pontiff is chosen.
Many Catholics say the new pope should be from the developing world, where more than two-thirds of the faithful live.
But the odds are stacked against cardinals like Nigeria's Francis Arinze and Claudio Hummes of Brazil, even though bookmakers put them fifth and sixth among the favourites.
Europe represents only 25 percent of global Catholics but has 50 percent of the cardinals in the conclave, which may explain the Frenchman and two Italians who are placed behind Ratzinger in the early betting odds.