VATICAN CITY, April 2 -- Shrouded in deep secrecy and rooted in medieval tradition, the choice of the next pope will bear the legacy of John Paul II, who appointed all but three of the 117 voting cardinals who will gather beneath the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to choose his successor. When they write the names of candidates by hand on rectangular cards for the balloting, it will be under rules that John Paul set nearly a decade ago.
John Paul's influence was so strong in every corner of the church that almost everyone in the emerging set of papabili -- men who could be pope -- shares his basic views. Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul's chief guardian of doctrine, was in full accord with the last pope's stances on sex and church discipline. Claudio Hummes of Brazil, for instance, became known for speaking out against the social harm of unrestrained capitalism, a favorite issue for John Paul.
Profiles: List of cardinals whom Vatican observers consider to be papabili, or potential popes.
So as Roman Catholics approach the defining moment of a papal election, all signs are that the church will stick broadly to its current course. The new pope is likely to stress a need for firm moral direction against the temptations of materialism in contemporary life. He will favor centralized Vatican authority. He is likely to firmly oppose abortion, euthanasia, contraception and the ordination of women, all issues of interest to many American Catholics.
Less certain is this new leader's nationality. John Paul, a Pole, broke a 450-year hold on the office by Italians, and even before his death, pressure was quietly mounting for a successor from the developing world, where most Catholics live and where the church has enjoyed some of its biggest successes in expanding its membership.
John Paul's towering personality will be very hard to replace. With character forged by the fights against Naziism and communism, with innate charisma and looks and a dynamism that stood up to the ravages of Parkinson's disease, John Paul appears set to go down in history as unique.
In announcing the death of John Paul Saturday evening, the Vatican also disclosed that the procedure for electing a new pope outlined in Universi Dominici Gregis, a 1996 Apostolic Constitution bearing John Paul's stamp, had been set in motion.
Members of the College of Cardinals, some of whom are already flying in from foreign countries, will meet as a conclave, a pope-selecting body, no later than 20 days after the death. Only those under the age of 80 will have a vote; there will be no limit on the number of candidates. If after 30 ballots no one receives a two-thirds majority, the margin for victory can be reduced so that the next pope could be chosen by a simple majority.
If John Paul's voting system works as intended, the election will be comparatively quick, with no repeat of past conclaves that ran for weeks.
His innovations will be grafted onto an election system that has medieval origins and draws heavily on the pomp of court life of bygone eras. When the cardinals, wearing their scarlet caps, begin deliberations, an ecclesiastical master of ceremonies will give them a pep talk. They will be enjoined, in Latin, to act "for the good of the universal church" with "only God before your eyes."
Details of the deliberations that follow will likely never be known. John Paul's changes did little to reduce the secrecy that is among the most rigid traditions -- the root of the word conclave is the Latin for "key." The strict secrecy will be especially striking given the intense spotlight that shone on John Paul, the most widely traveled, photographed and recognized pontiff in history.
No reporters will conduct interviews beneath Michelangelo's depiction of a stern Jesus at the Last Judgment. Technicians will make sure that no listening devices have been inserted anywhere in the chapel, where the bearded Creator reaches toward a naked Adam to bring him to life. And no cell phones or video recorders will be allowed.
The blackout will extend to the nearby Apostolic Palace, where the cardinals will spend their breaks, and to the Casa Santa Marta, a $20 million hotel-style residence that was built under John Paul's direction, where the cardinals will stay.
Outer Vatican windows will be sealed, just in case someone wants to send a hand signal. If outside communication is required for an emergency, three cardinals are designated to handle the requests.
The punishment for breaching the rules of secrecy: excommunication by the next pope.