Rumors about the ultra-secret voting for the next pope held at the Sistine Chapel next week have included stories about fierce competition between Italian and non-Italian cardinals, leaks about cardinals who want to dig into classified Vatican dossiers, and a rotating list of names of the latest papal candidates du jour.
Is there a consensus among the 115 cardinals who will choose the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics? Perhaps. Will it be an Italian, such as Milan Cardinal Angelo Scola, or a South American, like Brazilian-born Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer? How about an American? Or will the next leader hail from Africa, Asia or Central America?
On Saturday, one of the few sources of official information on the Vatican gave reporters hints about the mood of the cardinals who will start the papal conclave Tuesday afternoon.
There's "no reason to believe it will take long" to have a new pope, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Fredrico Lombardi said. While he didn't elaborate, the words suggested a frontrunner or frontrunners had developed and that there could be a pope before Friday. Recent papal elections have not been long; both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II were elected after two days.
In Saturday's briefing, Lombardi also denied any "huge discussion" among cardinals about when to start voting for a new pope. Leading up to Friday's announcement about the start of the conclave, Vatican reporters suggested that Italian cardinals wanted an earlier conclave to have more influence over the votes, leaving cardinals who had traveled to Rome less time to consider the candidates.
Through Saturday, cardinals had met nine times in General Congregations, which are pre-conclave meetings for discussing priorities for the church as well as deciding on a conclave date. Lombardi said Saturday that cardinals "unequivocally" decided on March 12 for the conclave, by a 10-to-1 margin.
Lombardi added that participants in recent General Congregation meetings have discussed hopes for the new pope, regional developments in the church and "improving the work of the curia" -- the mostly Italian cardinals who run the Vatican. There will be no General Congregation on Sunday, but the meetings will continue Monday.
The spokesman also detailed the timetable for the voting process. Cardinals drew lots on Saturday for rooms at the Casa Santa Marta, a closely guarded Vatican residence where they'll stay during the conclave. They'll move into the building Tuesday morning before the Mass Pro Eligendo Pontifice ("for the Election of the Roman Pontiff") at 10 a.m. at the Pauline Chapel. The chapel is connected to the Sistine Chapel, to which cardinals will proceed at 4:30 p.m. They will take an oath of secrecy, then anyone not taking part in the conclave will be asked to leave the building.
The cardinals will listen to a meditation by Maltese Cardinal Prospero Grech about their responsibilities during the conclave and will vote up to two times. At 7 p.m., they'll pray and at 7:30 return to the Casa Santa Marta.
Aside from the two votes Tuesday, there will be up to four votes per day until the a cardinal receives two-thirds of the vote (77 votes), which is the requirement to become pope. Depending on when the winning vote is taken, white smoke will arise from the Sistine Chapel at 10:30 a.m., noon, 5:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. If no pope was elected, black smoke will arise from the chapel's chimney at noon and 7 p.m. Lombardi clarified that the new pope has to accept the position before white smoke is released, and said if smoke is released at night, the Sistine Chapel chimney will be lit up so onlookers can see it.
Starting Wednesday, the cardinals will have up to two votes before prayer and lunch at 12:30 p.m., and up to two votes at 4 p.m. before prayer at 7:15 p.m.
If there's no election by Friday, cardinals will pause on Saturday for a day of reflection and prayer. The voting would continue in that pattern (three days of voting with a one-day break) until the 34th voting round. Then there would be a runoff between the top two candidates.
When a pope is chosen and white smoke rises from the chapel, the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will ring, as they did in 2005 when Benedict was elected. Lombardi noted it took about 40 minutes between the white smoke and official announcement in 2005.
This year, it will be French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the senior cardinal deacon, who will stand on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to shout "Habemus Papam!" ("We have a new pope!"). He'll present the new pope, who will be in white papal cassocks (three sizes are kept on reserve) and give his first blessing as pope.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Cardinal Prospero Grech is from Italy. He is from Malta.