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Cardinals set to convene conclave

Observers see no clear favorite for papal successor

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VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- Shrouded in secrecy, cardinals will convene the first of a series of private meetings at the Vatican on Monday to elect a new pope to lead the Roman Catholic Church.

Isolated from the outside world, the 115 eligible cardinals from 52 countries on six continents will begin the millennium's first conclave, with the goal of electing the 265th pope.

Pope John Paul II put his own stamp on the centuries-old process before his death April 2 at age 84. John Paul appointed all but three of the 115 cardinals who will choose his successor.

Although a media blackout has been in place for more than a week, a number of cardinals have made it clear that there is no obvious heir apparent. (Potential successors)

"I think the race remains wide open," CNN Vatican analyst John Allen said, calling this the first conclave in which Italians have not been in control in at least the early stages.

It's unlikely John Paul made known any preference for a successor, said Chester Gillis, chairman of the department of theology at Georgetown University.

"I just don't think it would have been in character for him to give the nod to someone," he said.

A Mass celebrated Saturday was the last held during the nine days of mourning that started with John Paul's funeral April 8. (Full story)

The cardinals were to move Sunday afternoon into the Domus Sanctae Marthae, on Vatican grounds, where they will be housed throughout the conclave, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Saturday.

The cardinals have been meeting since the pope's death, but the business of choosing a successor has not begun, Navarro-Valls said.

"No name was proposed, or spoken of, or even suggested," he said.

Monday Mass

A Mass "for the election of the supreme pontiff" will be celebrated in the Vatican Basilica at 10 a.m. Monday, Navarro-Valls said.

The conclave begins Monday at 4:30 p.m., when the cardinals leave the Hall of Blessings and walk in a procession to the Sistine Chapel, Navarro-Valls said.

Once in the Sistine Chapel, each cardinal will swear an oath, of which secrecy is just one part. The cardinals will also swear to observe the changes to the process that John Paul put in place in 1996 and to faithfully carry out the duties of the office.

The cardinals have the option of holding one vote Monday.

Quick vote?

Some Vatican watchers predicted that the process would be completed within a few days.

"If I were a betting man, which I'm not, I'm guessing by this April 21st, we'll have a new pope elected," the Rev. David O'Connell, president of the Catholic University of America, told CNN on Sunday.

John-Peter Pham, a former Vatican diplomat, noted that none of the past three papal elections took more than eight days and that some of John Paul's changes were intended to prevent an impasse. If no one has the required two-thirds majority after about 34 ballots, a simple majority will suffice.

"I couldn't anticipate a scenario where this would go much longer than a week," Pham said.

Ideally, a pope would be selected in three or four days, Allen said. Less than that could give the impression of a rush to judgment, and any longer could leave the impression the cardinals were divided, he said.

The longest interregnum occurred in the 13th century, lasting two years and nine months.

Choreographed voting

The balloting itself is elaborately choreographed. Each cardinal is given a piece of paper on which the words, in Latin, are inscribed: "I elect as supreme pontiff ... "

After noting their choices in handwriting they are are encouraged to disguise, each cardinal approaches a table in the Sistine Chapel in order of seniority, picks up a silver plate and places the ballot on top. He then puts the plate into an urn.

Three cardinals count each ballot, and another three check the counting to ensure its accuracy.

On Tuesday, a Mass will be held in the hotel at 7:30 a.m., and the cardinals will assemble in the chapel by 9 a.m. Two votes will take place in the morning and two more in the afternoon, beginning at 4 p.m.

Below is the geographic distribution of cardinals voting in the conclave:

Europe: 58
Latin America: 20
North America: 14
Africa: 11
Asia: 10
Oceania: 2

Leading countries:
Italy: 20
United States: 11
Germany: 6
Spain: 6
France: 5
Brazil: 4
Canada: 3
Colombia: 3
India: 3
Mexico: 3
Poland: 3

Source: The Associated Press

After the votes, the ballots are burned in a stove, with the color of smoke from the chapel's chimney announcing to observers outside whether a pope has been elected.

The ballots from the morning votes will probably be burned about noon, and the ballots from the afternoon will go up in smoke around 7 p.m., Navarro-Valls said.

In another change decreed by John Paul to avoid a repeat of the confusion that occurred at his election in 1978, when the smoke appeared gray, bells will also be rung to announce an election.

'Who can command respect?'

Should a voting bloc emerge, Italian cardinals could lead a push to return the papacy to an Italian, O'Connell said. John Paul was Polish -- and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

But O'Connell added that country of origin could prove less important than other factors.

John Paul was a youthful and vigorous 58 in 1978, when he was made pope, but "the feeling that is emerging" is that the cardinals might prefer someone "a bit more seasoned," O'Connell said.

Also high on the list of requirements for any candidate is likely to be an ability to speak multiple languages, travel and reach out to a global audience, O'Connell added.

The ability to respond to issues critical to the developing world could also prove key, O'Connell said. The number of Catholics and clergy is growing in Africa, South Asia and Latin America, even as their numbers have remained stagnant or dropped in Europe and the United States.

"Their focus is going to be: Who can lead this global church in the 21st century? Who can command respect, provide the vision and the sense of hope?" he said.

Bookmakers have given high marks to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, Pham said.

But, he added, Ratzinger's role could prove to be less as candidate than as a "kingmaker," Pham said.

Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Milan, the largest archdiocese in Europe, is also considered a contender, Pham said. Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice is also considered a strong candidate, he said.

Allen said he felt comfortable excluding a number of candidates.

"I'm pretty sure the next pope is not going to be an American," he said. "The Vatican takes its diplomatic independence far too seriously to elect a pope from the world's lone superpower."

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