The conclave to choose the next Pope begins in the Sistine Chapel on Monday. Experts say the cardinals are split on who to pick.
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Shut away from the outside world, cardinals prepared Monday to enter an ultra-secret conclave that combines ancient ritual with hi-tech gadgetry as they seek a new leader for a billion Roman Catholics around the globe.
The cardinals from 52 nations will go into the first conclave of the third millennium on Monday afternoon after a morning of pomp and pageantry in Saint Peter's basilica.
No one can say how long their deliberations will take, but when white smoke eventually floats up from a Vatican chimney to announce the election of a new pope, it will signal a new era for the Roman Catholic Church -- and possibly a new direction -- after 26 years of John Paul II.
"The new pope has already been chosen by the Lord," Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli said Sunday. "We must only pray to know who it is."
The 115 cardinals were spending the night in the purpose-built, hotel-like Santa Marta residence inside the Vatican where they will eat, rest and confer between votes.
At 10 a.m. Monday they will join a solemn mass in Saint Peter's asking for God's guidance in their momentous choice. In the afternoon, in line with centuries of tradition, they will process in full regalia to the fresco-adorned Sistine Chapel chanting the "Veni Creator" (Come, Creator).
Tables and chairs line the Sistine Chapel decorated by Michelangelo's Last Judgment, in the background.
There, under the awesome splendor of Michelangelo's Last Judgment showing Christ raising up the chosen and rejecting the wicked, the cardinals will vote in a series of secret ballots until a consensus emerges.
"It's the waiting time," wrote Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano. "The people of God know they should go through this period of waiting."
Experts: cardinals split down the middle
Once in the chapel, the cardinals will hear a "meditation" from 85-year-old Czech prelate Tomas Spidlik "on the need for careful discernment" in choosing the new pope.
In a first address last week, a Franciscan priest who has been a long-time preacher to the papal household warned them not to be ambitious or to promote themselves.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany
Vatican watchers believe that after more than a week of meetings, cardinals are split over who should be pope, with two main camps emerging -- one led by German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (photo), who is dean of the College of Cardinals, and the other by the Italian Carlo Maria Martini.
While neither is likely to obtain the two-thirds majority to win, they may be highly influential popemakers as the rounds proceed in a conclave which is likely to last several days.
Waiting for white smoke
It was not clear if the cardinals would actually begin voting Monday. Under the strict rules for choosing his successor laid down by John Paul II himself in 1996, they would normally be expected to begin voting from 2:30 p.m. on the first day of the conclave.
However, in an indication some may remain unclear about the rules, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Sunday that they would only decide after entering the conclave whether to vote the same day or wait until Tuesday.
White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel's chimney on Oct. 16, 1978 after John Paul II had been elected
The plan is to have two sessions each day with two votes in each session. The Vatican has said there will be a smoke signal after each session, black if the voting is inconclusive and white for a consensus.
To avoid any embarrassing confusion over the color of the smoke, the bells of Saint Peter's will also peal out when the cardinals have made their choice for the 265th pope.