The cardinals will convene inside the Sistine Chapel, and they are sworn to secrecy and barred from contact with the outside world until their deliberations are complete. Voting begins the first afternoon. If no papal candidate receives the required two-thirds of the votes, the ballot is repeated twice each morning and afternoon. If, after the third day, no pope is elected, a one-day break for prayer is permitted. Since the early 20th century, no conclave has lasted more than five days.
In his daily update Friday with the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said he thought the cardinals by Saturday could complete their pre-conclave sessions — in which they listen to discussions of the challenges facing the church in individual countries and take the measure of the men among them who could be pope.
“That’s certainly not my decision. That’s to the congregation,” Dolan said. “But I’m sensing, perhaps, I’m sensing a hope that we may be able to wrap up the meetings by tomorrow.”
The picking of the date puts to rest one of the first questions of the selection process and turns attention to more interesting mysteries: Will the Italians, who dominated the papacy for more than four centuries before the ascent of Poland’s John Paul II in 1978, reclaim the throne, or will another non-Italian pope be selected? (Benedict XVI is German.)
Will the 266th pontiff be the first from the so-called New World, either from South America, where the church’s 200 million faithful are courted in a lively religious marketplace, or from North America, where American and Canadian candidates are seen as surprisingly strong? Or will the church look to Africa, where it is gaining strength, or Asia?
And finally, who will emerge victorious from the power struggles inside the college: Prelates aligned with the church bureaucracy? Or the outsiders who hope to reform it?
On Sunday, many of the cardinals are expected to visit their titular churches in Rome, offering what could be a last glimpse of the prelates before they enter the conclave (from the Latin “with a key”). Before they begin a Vatican lockdown, they will spend these last days hammering out alliances, gravitating toward candidates or working to peel off supporters from other papal contenders.
Once inside the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican’s chamberlain — a position filled by Benedict’s former second in command, the embattled Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone — will declare “extra omnes.” At that moment, everyone without a vote exits, leaving the cardinals alone with Michelangelo’s frescoes and ballots reading “Eligo in summum pontificem” (“I elect as supreme pontiff”) across the top.