The Catholic Church is preparing for the elaborate rituals that mark the end of one papacy and the beginning of the next.

One such rite is the conclave, Latin for "with key." 

As the name implies, the nearly 800-year-old process of electing a new pope occurs in secret in the Sistine Chapel. All cardinals under the age of 80 participate. They are confined to the Vatican for the course of the conclave, cut off from electronic devices and the outside world.

Monsignor William Kerr, the Executive Director of Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, says the secret rite is one of the holiest performed by cardinals.

"There's a time of prayer and meditation.  There's a time of deliberation, discussion of what it is the church needs in leadership.  And then, ultimately, voting.  It could be that all the cardinals say there is only one person, the Holy Spirit is so clear in enlightening those cardinals that they say this is the person.  More than likely, that is not going to happen.  So it will be conversation back and forth.  Very civil conversation, and then eventually there will be an emergance," says Monsignor Kerr.

One-hundred and 17 cardinals are currently eligible to attend the conclave--which generally begins 15 to 20 days after the pope dies.

A two-thirds plus-one majority is needed to elect a new pontiff.  If a consensus has not been reached after 12 days, a simple majority can decide the successor.

Once the pope is chosen, cardinals signal it to the world by burning the election ballots to produce white smoke seen above the Vatican.

The worlds cardinal's have been summoned to Rome, a sign that preparations for a conclave is underway.

Before heading to the Vatican, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop of Washington, said whoever is chosen will follow an extraordinary leader.

"I'm one of the 117 cardinals who will hopefully go to Rome and prayerfully and carefully try to find someone, who in some way can take the place of this great pope," says Cardinal McCarrick.

Though speculation generally accompanies the conclave-- cardinals, as well as other Catholic church officials are tight-lipped about who might be chosen the new spiritual leader of the world's one-billion Catholics.  Cardinals are sworn to secrecy regarding the entire process--under threat of excommunication.

Monsignor Kerr says often, the choice of pontiff comes as a surprise.

"No one, I think, would have chosen this Polish man from Krackow the last time.  I mean if you looked at the lists that were published and rumored, then very, very seldom would you see anybody but an Italian.  Then, all of a sudden, you have a Polish pope.  Now the question is will this pope be an African, will this pope be from Latin America?  That's the question everyone is asking," says Monsignor Kerr.

For now, it remains speculation, and conclaves throughout history have had a tendency to surprise observers.