Sistine Chapel chimney installed, Vatican prepares for new pope

On Saturday the chimney that signals the election of a new pope was installed on the top of the Sistine Chapel. Pope Benedict XVI's personal seal and fisherman's ring were also destroyed as the cardinals prepare for the start of the conclave Tuesday.

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters
Media films inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican March 9. The conclave begins on Tuesday, with the sequestered cardinals using the chimney to tell the outside world whether or not they have chosen a new leader - black smoke signifying no decision and white smoke announcing a new pontiff.

Firefighters on Saturday installed the top of the Sistine Chapel chimney that will signal to the world that a new pope has been elected, as the Vatican took measures to definitively end Benedict XVI's pontificate.

While construction workers prepared the interior of the frescoed Sistine Chapel for Tuesday's start of the conclave, officials elsewhere in the Apostolic Palace destroyed Benedict's fisherman's ring and the personal seals and stamps for official papers.

The act, coupled with Benedict's public resignation and pledge of obedience to the future pope, is designed to signal a definitive end of his papacy so there is no doubt in the church that a new pope is in charge.

The developments all point toward the momentous decision soon to confront the Catholic Church: Tuesday's start of the conclave to elect a new pope to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and try to solve the numerous problems facing the church.

The Vatican outlined the timeline for the balloting and confirmed that the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will ring once a pope has been elected. But Vatican officials also acknowledged that there is some uncertainty about the whole endeavor, given the difficulties in discerning the color of smoke that will snake out of the Sistine chimney — black if no pope has been elected, white if a victor has emerged.

Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, laughed off concerns, saying that some "suspense" was all part of the beauty of the process.

"We're not going to send out text messages or SMS messages, you'll have to come and see," another Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, said.

For the sixth day, cardinals met behind closed doors to discuss the problems of the church and once again they discussed the work of the Holy See's offices "and how to improve it," according to Lombardi.

The Holy See's internal governance has been the major constant in these days of discussion, an indication that the revelations of corruption, political infighting and turf battles exposed by the leaks of papal documents last year are casting a very big shadow over this conclave.

While the cardinals ponder their choices, preparations for the vote continue.

On Saturday, a handful of firefighters climbed onto the Sistine Chapel's roof and installed the top of the chimney. Inside Michelangelo's frescoed masterpiece, construction workers staple-gunned the felt carpeting to the false floor that has been erected over the chapel's stone floor.

The false floor both evens out the steps of the chapel and hides the jamming equipment that has been installed to prevent any cellphone or eavesdropping devices from working. And in fact, on Saturday, cell phones had no reception in the chapel.

For such an important decision, the Sistine chimney is an awfully simple affair: a century-old cast iron stove where the voting ballot papers are burned, with a copper pipe out the top that snakes up the Sistine's frescoed walls, out the window and onto the chapel roof.

After years of confusion about whether the smoke was black or white, the Vatican in 2005 installed an auxiliary stove where fumigating cases are lit. The smoke from those cases — black or white — joins the burned ballot smoke out the chimney.

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