The behind-the-scenes politicking of picking a pope

As hundreds of thousands of mourners pay their last respects to the man lying in crimson-caped state in the nave of St Peter's Basilica, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has launched into a cycle of public rituals evolved over a thousand years.

In hotel rooms, quiet restaurant corners, and Vatican corridors, meanwhile, the princes of the church, its scarlet-hat cardinals, are indulging in equally time-honored traditions - sizing each other up and lobbying discreetly as they prepare to choose John Paul's successor. The interregnum between popes, known as the sede vacante, or "empty seat" period, is a time for looking both backward and forward. But during these days of uncertainty, every word that a cardinal utters is scrutinized for hints about the kind of man he favors for the future.

In the published text of his homily Sunday, for example, the Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, referred to the late pope as "the Great," an honorific bestowed on only three previous popes and reserved for those worthy of sainthood. But when he delivered his sermon, he did not speak those words.

More sermons will be carefully parsed as a series of cardinals preach at funeral rites held daily during the nine-day period of mourning. By their choice of which aspects of John Paul's pontificate to emphasize, the cardinals may reveal what kind of man they want to be the next pope.

Each day, too, the cardinals will meet in the Vatican to administer urgent church affairs, plan Friday's funeral, and organize their coming conclave, which must begin 15 and 20 days after the pope's death. At the pre-conclave gatherings, "a candidate has an opportunity to appear eloquent, or not, and if he is not Italian, to show" his skill in Italian, the Vatican's working language, says John Peter Pham, author of "Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession."

AS they ponder their choice, the cardinals are enjoined by rules that John Paul II laid down to "abstain from any form of pact" and "not to allow themselves to be ... influenced by favor or personal relationships." But the late pope added that "it is not my forbid, during the period in which the See is vacant, the exchange of views concerning the election."

Informal gatherings at restaurants and in private rooms "are more important than formal meetings," Dr. Pham says. "Though it would be considered in poor taste to bluntly discuss cardinals by name, they can discuss profiles, what the church needs, and leave it up to each other to see who they think best fits the bill." In public cardinals can drop veiled hints that their colleagues will understand up until the moment they all withdraw for the conclave, when they will be barred from all contact with the outside world.

In the frescoed splendor of the Sistine Chapel, they will vote four times a day as long as is needed for one candidate to garner a two-thirds majority. Each time, each of them will write his candidate's name on a piece of paper: Each sheet will be threaded onto a length of cotton, and the whole package will be burned.

When the vote is indecisive, straw or a chemical will be added to the papers, so that black smoke puffs from the Vatican chimney.

Before the days of modern transport, cardinals would often arrive just in time for a conclave. This time they will have had two weeks to socialize, which means they may not need much time to make up their minds. The longest conclave in the last century finished after five days.

Under John Paul's new rules, if no candidate has won a two-thirds majority after 30 votes, a simple majority can decide how to proceed - narrowing the field to the leading two contenders, for example.

Once they have reached a decision, the ballots will be burned in such a manner as to give off the legendary white smoke, and Vatican bells will ring, signaling an end to the conclave. When the winner has accepted his new post, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, will step out onto the Vatican balcony above St. Peter's Square and make the announcement: "Habemus Papam" - "We have a Pope."

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