One hundred fifteen Roman Catholic cardinals from 52 countries began a secret conclave Monday, in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, that will choose a successor to the late Pope John Paul II.
The cardinals attended a special mass at Saint Peter's Basilica before going into the conclave. It was the cardinals' last public appearance before they undertake the daunting task of finding a man to fill the charismatic John Paul's shoes.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the influential dean of the college of cardinals and a close collaborator of the late pontiff, officiated at the mass and urged his fellow princes of the church to choose someone who will follow in John Paul's footsteps and protect Catholics against what he called dangers to the faith like Marxism, atheism and liberalism.
Cardinal Ratzinger warned his colleagues and the faithful against what he described as the tyranny of relativism - the belief that there are no absolute truths.
He says the world is moving towards what he calls a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as being certain and whose only purpose is to satisfy individual egos and desires. He says the challenge facing the next pope is to preserve rather than change the way the church looks at the world.
Cardinal Ratzinger, who has been called, among other things, "the pope's enforcer" for his strict adherence to Catholic doctrine, is considered a potential successor to John Paul. But Vatican-watchers doubt that the 78-year-old German, whose conservative dogma has polarized the Catholic world, will be able to garner the 77 votes needed to become pope.
Father Greg Apparcel, the rector of Rome's Santa Susanna church, says Catholics should not be surprised by Cardinal Ratzinger's blunt words.
"It was pretty predictable that he would say something like that because that's the way he has been," he said. "I mean, he's who he is, and for him to say something that strong at this mass, I was a little surprised, but then I thought, well, is he like talking about what he wants his papacy to be if he were elected pope, or is he figuring that this may be his last chance to say publicly what he feels the direction of the church should be, and, you know, it could be the latter."
Church officials say the cardinals are aware that they will be unable to find a carbon copy of John Paul but want a new pope to be charismatic in his own way.
Many cardinals are thought to believe that John Paul's successor should try to make the church more appealing to young people and be willing to have the Vatican share power with bishops around the world.
German cardinal Walter Kasper, in charge of the Vatican's relations with other Christian churches, told reporters Sunday after celebrating mass at a Rome church that no single candidate to succeed John Paul has emerged.
"There are a lot of changes to face, and it will not be easy to find the right person who can respond to all the problems," said Cardinal Kasper.
Before proceeding into the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals will take an oath of secrecy and then decide whether to hold a first ballot on Monday or postpone voting until Tuesday. They will communicate their progress to the outside by sending up billows of black smoke from a special chimney if there is no pope yet, and white smoke if they have elected a new pontiff.