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Conclave to Choose Next Pope Will Begin April 18

Pope John Paul II looks at a white dove freed at the end of the Angelus prayer in St. Peter's square - file photo

The Vatican has announced that the conclave of cardinals that will choose a successor to the late Pope John Paul II will begin on April 18. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are still lining up to get a last glimpse of John Paul's body, which is lying in state at Saint Peter's Basilica.

One hundred seventeen Roman Catholic cardinals are eligible to take part in the secret voting for a new pope. Most, but not all, are already in Rome. A week from next Monday, they will begin meeting behind closed doors in the Sistine Chapel, with its Michaelangelo frescoes.

But, whereas in the past, they would have been confined to the chapel and forced to sleep in tiny makeshift cells, this time they will be lodged in a new hotel built on the grounds of the Vatican, and they will be allowed to take breaks in the Vatican gardens.

The Vatican also announced that the late pope's last will and testament, written in Polish over the course of his papacy, will be published on Thursday. Earlier this week, the Vatican spokesman said John Paul II left no will or testament, but Vatican sources say he meant that the late pope left no instructions as to where he wanted to be buried and how his material possessions should be distributed.

The 15-page document to be released Thursday has already been read to the cardinals. It is said to contain John Paul's guidance on the church's spiritual future.

Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is editor of the magazine America, describes the importance of the pope's testament to the church.

"It will be his last opportunity to speak to the cardinals about the things that are close to his heart, to talk to them about their job of electing a new pope and really express his final wishes and desires, both to the cardinals and to the world," said Father Reese.

As the cardinals met for the third day in a row, the Catholic faithful continue to flock Saint Peter's Square and its adjacent streets and avenues to pay their final respects to their departed spiritual leader. More than a million people have already filed past the pontiff's body, and another 650,000 were expected to do so by the end of the day.

Italy's official RAI radio and television network reports that up to two million Poles have arrived or are heading toward Rome by bus to join the mourners.

Because most of the pilgrims have had to wait in line for at least six hours to get into the basilica, Italian authorities announced that, as of 10:00 pm Rome time, they will turn new arrivals away so as to allow those who are still in line 24 hours to pay their final homage to John Paul II.