Cardinals moved into the Vatican yesterday as the suspense mounted ahead of a secret papal election with no clear frontrunner to steer the Catholic Church through troubled waters after Pope Benedict XVI’s historic resignation.
The 115 cardinal electors who pick the next leader of 1.2 billion Catholics in a conclave in the Sistine Chapel will live inside the Vatican walls completely cut off from the outside world until they have made their choice.
In a series of centuries-old rituals yesterday, the cardinals were sworn in with a solemn oath that threatens anyone who reveals the deliberations of the conclave with instant excommunication.
Dozens of Vatican staff working on the conclave, including cooks, drivers and security guards, swore the oath on Monday and jamming devices have been installed to prevent any bugging or communication in or out of the chapel.
The prayers were due to begin with a special Mass called “For the Election of the Roman Pontiff” in St Peter’s Basilica at 10am.
Cardinals would later file into the Sistine Chapel from 4:30pm chanting in procession to invoke the Holy Spirit to inspire their choice.
The cardinals were set to hold a first round of voting later yesterday, but the Vatican has already said it expects the smoke from the burning of the ballots to be black, indicating no papal election has taken place.
Ballots on subsequent days will be burnt at about midday after two rounds of voting in the morning and at about 7pm after two rounds in the afternoon — the smoke is famously turned white if there is a new pope.
Catholics around the globe have been praying for the conclave, which is expected to last no more than a few days.
“We’ll be praying for the cardinals until a decision is made, it’s the part we play in the conclave,” said sister Celestina, 62, a nun from Croatia, kneeling in a church near the Vatican.
“The church is like a boat, all the faithful are sailing in it together, but we’re without a helmsman at the moment,” she said.
Among the possible candidates, three have emerged as favorites — Italy’s Angelo Scola, Brazil’s Odilo Scherer and Canada’s Marc Ouellet, all of them conservatives cast in the same mold as pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
However, the rumor mill in the Vatican has thrown up more names, too, including cardinals from Austria, Hungary, Mexico, South Africa, the Philippines and the US — many of them inspiring pastoral figures in their communities.
The field is wide open, although a few key aims unite many of the cardinals after Benedict’s rocky eight-year papacy — reform the intrigue-filled Vatican bureaucracy, counter rising secularism in the West and find new inspiration for Catholics in the way John Paul II did.
The scandal over decades of sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests — and the efforts made by senior prelates to cover up the crimes — has cast a long shadow over the church that will be an ongoing challenge for the new pope.
There have been calls from within the church, too, for a rethink of some basic tenets, such as priestly celibacy, the uniform ban on artificial contraception and even allowing women to be priests as in other Christian denominations.
“We need someone able to provide the church with what it needs in today’s world, someone who will help it open up to the world and listen to the people,” said Roger Seogo, a priest from Burkina Faso visiting the Vatican.