The death of Pope John Paul II sets in motion what may be the world's oldest continuing electoral process. The rules and procedures for choosing a pope are laid down in ancient Roman Catholic Church law. But the process has undergone some changes over time.
Although choosing a pope is on the surface a fairly straightforward process, it is shrouded in secrecy, pomp and ritual. It is not only one of the oldest political processes in the world, but also one of the most fascinating, even to non-Catholics.
Singing the ancient Gregorian hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus", or "Come, Holy Spirit" the electors, who are all cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church under the age of 80, will file into the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. There, under the stunning newly restored frescoes of Michelangelo, they sit down to choose a pope. The cardinals will remain locked up in the Vatican until they reach a decision. Successive secret ballots are held until one candidate receives two-thirds plus one of the votes.
Cardinals are sworn to keep the conclave procedures secret under pain of excommunication, which is a surprisingly recent punishment, dating back only a little over 100 years ago. These days electronic sweeps are made of the conclave areas to make sure there are no listening devices. Cardinals are even cut off from e-mail. No laptops or handheld computers are allowed, and mobile phones are banned.
Locking the cardinals up to deliberate and vote was designed some 800 years ago to keep secular outsiders - such as kings and emperors - from trying to influence the vote, and also to get the cardinals to reach a choice quickly. But that didn't work all the time. In 1271, an angry mob tore off the roof of the palace and reduced the cardinals to a diet of bread and water after a three-year-long conclave failed to produce a pope.
New rules promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1996 allow election by a simple majority in extreme circumstances of a lengthy deadlock of perhaps two weeks.
But few Vatican observers expect a modern conclave to last that long. Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine "America" and author of a book on Vatican politics, says pressure is strong to reach a decision quickly.
"All of the media will be outside each day waiting and wondering what's going on inside there," said Father Reese. "So the pressure will be on the cardinals to get their act together and elect a successor, lest rumors start floating around that they can't make up their mind, that there are these big disagreements and factions. They don't want that kind of publicity. So I think the pressure will be on to come to a decision within three to five days."
The College of Cardinals used to be much smaller, numbering under 100, and numerically dominated by Italians. But now there are 120 "princes of the church," as they are sometimes called, from all over the world eligible to participate in the election conclave.
Monsignor Bryan Ferme, dean of the Catholic University of America's School of Canon Law, says the cardinals do not know each other as well as they did when their numbers were fewer. As a result, he says, the length of the conclave may well depend on how quickly the cardinals can get comfortable with each other.
"It's one of those amazing ironies," said Monsignor Ferme. "In a world of mass communication and transport and media access, my own sneaking suspicion is that they don't know one another that well, or as well as they might have in the past, with smaller numbers."
There is no active politicking as such. As Monsignor Ferme says, there are quiet discussions among the sequestered cardinals. When actual balloting comes, he says, a trend usually emerges toward a particular cardinal.
"The whole dynamics of elections of this type - that is, not in large political elections but in smallish groups - becomes fairly obvious, or fairly obvious indications begin to appear, as each ballot occurs as to whom the cardinals are beginning to look at as a potential successor of Peter," he said. "And that has a dynamic - and the church believes also with its prayers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - has a dynamic in terms of prompting the cardinals to see, yes, this is the person who really is under the eyes of God who I would like to be elected as pope."
John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years, and because of his selection the candidate field is now likely to go beyond the borders of Italy, especially since cardinals now come from every corner of the globe. Father Reese says the electors will be choosing a potential pope with an eye to (with an awareness of) how the new head of the church will be received back home.
"Tip O'Neill, the famous speaker of the House of Representatives from Boston, once said that 'all politics is local.' And that's true in the Catholic Church, too," he said. "When the cardinals gather together, each of the cardinals is going to be thinking about how will this candidate, how will this pope, be received in my part of the world?"
There is one significant difference between this conclave and those in 1978 that elected John Paul I and John Paul the II. These cardinal electors will have far more comfortable lodging than those of the past. The old theory of making the cardinals uncomfortable with poor food and Spartan living quarters in order to speed their selection of the new pope has now been tossed aside.