VATICAN CITY - Tomorrow, 115 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will sequester themselves in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel for the beginning of the faith's most private and perhaps most important ritual, the election of a new pope.
They will dress in their traditional scarlet cassocks and hats, and, after a Mass and lunch, will file one by one into the 15th-century sanctuary, chanting an ancient ode to God.
They will have surrendered cell phones, radios and any other links to the outside, and they will swear on the Gospels never to speak of the proceedings about to transpire. Once inside, the cardinals will hear speeches from Vatican officials describing the state of the church and their immediate duties, then they will dismiss the speakers and all others not eligible to vote.
A cardinal will rise, walk to the chapel door and lock it, and the conclave will officially begin.
"What it comes down to is that these cardinals are looking for someone who can serve as a successor to [St.] Peter," said John Wauck, a Vatican expert teaching at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. "They are looking for someone they can imagine calling 'your holiness,' the next vicar of Christ, servant of the servants of God."
Beneath the history and pageantry is a process that may well shape the future of Catholicism for a generation or more. The man who appears in white on the Vatican balcony at the conclave's conclusion will have entered the chapel as merely one of many church officials, but will emerge as the leader and ideological linchpin of by far the largest Christian denomination. It is a position of global stature - and a job, Vatican insiders say, that few of the church's cardinals are likely to covet.
"Frankly, anybody who wants to be pope is out of his mind," said Archbishop John P. Foley, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and who has worked at the Vatican for 21 years. "It's a living martyrdom."
The group of cardinals in the conclave will be the largest and most geographically diverse since the Church, in 1179, recognized cardinals as the sole electors of a pope. Although 117 cardinals are eligible to participate, two are unable to travel because of illness.
Though only two of the men present participated in the conclave that chose John Paul II, the cardinals will all know what is expected.
Only one vote may be conducted tomorrow, followed by four each day until a new pope is selected. Tradition dictates that each cardinal pen the name of a candidate on a rectangular paper ballot, fold it in half lengthwise, then rise one at a time and walk to the Sistine Chapel's altar. They will drop their ballots into an urn - Pope John Paul did away with the traditional chalice during his tenure - then recite a declaration of the vote's authenticity.
Three cardinals, chosen at random, will count the ballots, and one will read the names aloud if the number of votes corresponds to the number of cardinals present. As each ballot is read, the cardinal will pierce it with a needle and thread the ballots together, a tradition designed to ensure that none of them is lost or saved. A second set of three cardinals then recounts the ballots.
If two-thirds of the cardinals have not agreed on a single candidate, the ballots are burned, along with any notes or evidence of the vote. Traditionally, straw was added to the fire to create black smoke to signal to the crowds outside that no pope had been chosen. When a successor was selected the ballots were burned by themselves, yielding white smoke to signal the conclave's success. This year the cardinals will have bells rung to announce the pope's election.
The cardinals will continue voting four times a day - twice in the morning, twice in the evening - until that two-thirds majority is reached. If no pope is elected after the third day, they may choose to rest for a day of reflection before resuming the schedule, taking an additional rest after each group of seven unsuccessful ballots.
The pattern can continue twice more - seven votes, optional break, seven votes, optional break - before a provision created by Pope John Paul allows the cardinals to decide that a simple majority of the ballots will be enough to elect a pope.
A quick election would signal an easy consensus, while delays would likely indicate multiple candidates with opposing factions of supporters. While conclaves in medieval times lasted as long as three years, the longest in the 20th century - the election of Pope Pius XI in 1922 - took 14 ballots over five days.
The public is never supposed to know whatever disagreements or political infighting took place, a benefit of the secrecy of the process.
"It's better that these things are not discussed in an open forum," said Msgr. Charles Burns, a retired Vatican archivist. "Suppose we know he scraped by in one vote. It would detract from the figure of the new pope."
Historians say politicking inside the conclave is subtle, accomplished through informal conversations over meals and walks through the courtyard of the cardinals' residence. There is ample evidence, from the scraps of contraband records of previous conclaves, that coalition building and candidate blocking is common.
Through the informal discussions, factions reach a consensus around one name, or float names of compromise candidates who can attract the necessary two-thirds. It is considered politically unwise for a cardinal to promote his own candidacy. If a man wants the job, conventional thinking goes, then he obviously doesn't comprehend the responsibility.
"Sure, there are a few ambitious types," said Rome-based-writer Gerard O'Connell, who chronicles the lives of cardinals. But to be seen as such "kills your chances," he said.
For the men casting the ballots, the duty is considered their foremost priority. Their title, cardinal, comes from the Latin word for hinge (cardo), for these are the men on which the Church's future turns.
During his tenure, Pope John Paul expanded the cardinal pool and also continued to diversify it. A bare majority of the voting cardinals, all under 80 and healthy enough to have traveled to Rome, are European, with Italy's 20 cardinals the largest number from a single country.
Yet the group assembling tomorrow will scarcely resemble the membership of past conclaves, which often included several dozen cardinals from Western Europe - most of them Italian - who might vote while their colleagues from other continents were still en route to Rome.
Cardinals eligible to take part in this year's conclave include 11 from the United States - the second-largest number from a single country - along with 21 from Latin America, 11 from Asia and 11 from Africa. More than one-third will come from the developing world.
Still, the diverse group has many common traits, since all but two of them were elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of America: The National Catholic Weekly. Most share Pope John Paul's interpretation of Catholic teaching, Reese said. And most firmly reject the ordination of women and contraception, and strongly embrace traditional concepts such as clerical celibacy.
Those are believed to be the positions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 78, who presided over the pope's funeral and will serve as a type of officiator for the conclave. Though Pope Paul VI elevated him to cardinal in 1977, it was under Pope John Paul that Ratzinger became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the senior Vatican official responsible for protecting and promulgating the church's morals and doctrine.
Many cardinals also champion economic and social justice in their home countries, much as Pope John Paul did during his travels. Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, the 62-year-old archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has campaigned for debt relief for impoverished nations. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 68-year-old archbishop of Buenos Aires, is a fervid advocate for Argentina's poor, and known for using public transit and continuing to live in a simple apartment.
Others among the cardinals are worldly diplomats who, like the man who elevated them, travel frequently to act as ambassadors for the church. Cardinal Ivan Dias, the 68-year-old archbishop of Bombay, India, spent much of his clerical life as a spokesman for the Vatican and is fluent in more than a dozen languages.
Whoever is chosen, he will instantly have an influential voice. But he will just as quickly lose his former identity upon accepting the role, without a transition period of even a day. He will immediately choose a new name to carry for the rest of his life, then change into the white ensemble from among three sizes already prepared, with a few alterations from the Vatican tailor.
His first public speech, addressed to the Vatican and to the world, will probably take place the same day he is elected the church's new leader.
Foley, of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, recalled an episode just after the first conclave of 1978 that convinced him few cardinals would be eager to take the job. Upon meeting the newly elected pope, John Paul I, Foley mentioned a recent visit to the pope's hometown basilica in Venice, and recalls how the pontiff paused and looked at him with sadness.
"He told me that he'd never be able to say Mass there again," Foley said. "He was right. He never returned there because it was just a small basilica. It was too small for a pope."
Janice D'Arcy reported from Vatican City. Robert Little contributed to this story from Baltimore.