Cardinals gather for final pre-conclave discussions

Cardinal Cardinals will gather in conclave from Tuesday to decide the new pope

Global leaders of the Roman Catholic Church meeting in the Vatican have held their final group discussions ahead of the election of the new Pope.

Some 161 cardinals have spoken during the 10 General Congregations held during the past week.

On Tuesday, the 115 cardinal-electors, those aged under 80, will move into seclusion in a Vatican hotel ahead of the secret vote on the next pope.

Later they will concelebrate a Mass for the election in St Peter's Basilica.

After lunch on Tuesday, the electors will process into the Sistine Chapel, where one vote will be held that evening.

The ballot papers used will be burned after the vote and the smoke that will drift out of the chapel's rust-coloured chimney early that evening is likely to be black - meaning no pope - as no frontrunner has emerged in the five days of general discussions so far among the 115 cardinals.

Vows of secrecy

Monday's discussions covered expectations of the next Pope and hopes for his pontificate.

Among the speakers, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the president of the committee of cardinals overseeing the Vatican Bank, gave a brief report on its status.

Virtual Sistine Chapel

Philippa Thomas

Step inside to find out how the next Pope is elected

On Monday evening (at 16:30 GMT), some 90 support staff for the conclave - including priests who will hear confessions, security staff, cooks, cleaners, technicians and medics - will swear an oath of secrecy in the Pauline Chapel.

The punishment for breaching this oath is excommunication.

The Vatican has also released a booklet detailing Tuesday's Mass, which will be concelebrated by all cardinals - including those aged over 80 - and led by the Dean of cardinals, Angelo Sodano.

He will deliver the homily, which is likely to point at the major concerns raised by the cardinals during their meetings over the past week.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger performed this role in 2005, delivering a scathing message on the dictatorship of relativism which was widely seen as highlighting his papal credentials.

From Wednesday, two votes will be held each morning and afternoon - with ballots burned after each session at about 12:00 (11:00 GMT) and 18:00 - until one candidate attains 77 votes - a two-thirds majority. And then the smoke will be white.

Tackle corruption

The last election in 2005 took two days, and correspondents say the number of meetings this time is being seen as a reflection of the many challenges facing the Church.

Curtain The new pope will appear on St Peter's central balcony once he is elected

Despite the vows of secrecy taken by the cardinals, Italian newspapers have been publishing what they say are leaked details of debate among cardinals on problems faced by the Church – as well as the formation of general factions.

They suggest that voters are split into two groups – the so-called Romans, who work in the Vatican, and outsiders who want change in the Curia, the administrative apparatus of the Holy See.

These so-called reformers want the next pope to tackle what they see as the Vatican’s corruption, inefficiency and reluctance to share power and information with local Church leaders.

Over the weekend, final touches were being made in preparation for the vote. Stoves for the burning of ballots were installed in the Sistine Chapel, where the floor has been raised and tables and chairs have been set under Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling.

Special technology has been installed to jam any mobile phones or other devices which could breach the strict secrecy of the process.

Red curtains have been hung from St Peter’s central balcony overlooking the square, from where the new pope will be introduced to the crowds below once he is elected.

Pope Benedict XVI stepped down last month after nearly eight years in office, becoming the first pontiff to resign in 600 years. The 85-year-old blamed his failing health for his inability to carry on.

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